When I was a child, I remember thinking to myself, “boy, if I could only have that toy, I would never want another thing the rest of my life!” Happiness was something that one has, a thing to be possessed. Of course, when I did get what I wanted the joy it brought was short-lived. How puzzling it seemed to be disappointed, disabused from what seemed sure to guarantee eternal contentment. A lesson learned throughout a lifetime, happiness is not a material object or a thing to possess. It is not an attainable state of eternal bliss, nor is it the promise of a future obtainable through the satisfaction of a desire. If not these, what then is happiness and how is it obtainable, if at all? Much attention has been given in recent years by several authors and studies to try to answer these questions. Perhaps we best start by examining the wisdom of philosophers from antiquity to modern times.
Aristotle, the great philosopher of Greek antiquity, regarded the achievement of happiness an ethical issue. To live an ethical life is to live a good life, a balanced life engaged in purposeful endeavors. Happiness, he said, is an end in itself, a purpose toward which all other endeavors, such as friendship, financial prosperity, and good health, serve. Thus, to be happy one must be engaged in life, driven toward achieving goals, and capable of appreciating the joys engagement in purposeful activity brings.
Epicurus of Samos was a philosopher who lived in the third century B.C. who believed happiness to be the goal of life itself. For Epicurus happiness is a long-term project achieved throughout a lifetime by living a simple life and avoiding extremes. A life of balance and temperance and tendering good friendships, he believed, offers one the greatest prospects of freedom from the hardships and perils that unbridled ambition and indulgence in pleasure risk.
Arthur Schopenhauer was a 19th century German philosopher who is known for helping found the movement in philosophy known as existentialism. Schopenhauer noted wryly that it is a tragedy of life that pleasures are fleeting whereas misery and suffering seem to endure forever. Life is a mortal coil in which we all are entangled and cannot escape; to invest in happiness that is derived from earthly pleasures, therefore, is doomed to bring bitter disappointment and emptiness. For Schopenhauer the solution to this tragedy is to invest in the more enduring rewards that transcend one’s biological and mundane needs, such as in the arts, humanities, and philosophical practices that promote empathy and compassion.
The Rewards of Altruism
Balance, moderation, friendship, investment in a future and in altruistic concerns, these are the themes that resonate with the great thinkers throughout civilization. Recent studies have supported these notions by and large. Living a life devoted to helping others and involvement with others builds networks of support that create purpose, a focus away from one’s personal troubles, and a lifeline that offers stability and enrichment of life. While financial security is a necessary condition to live a safe and stable life, recent studies have found that earning more than a moderate level of income does not increase one’s level of happiness over-all. Altruistic endeavors, such as contributing to charitable causes, elevate one’s self-esteem and sense of well-being.
Self Reflection To Gain Wisdom
I recently heard an ad on the radio quoting the famous pop/jazz musician, Herb Alpert, whose basic advice to artists and musicians seeking success and fulfillment in their professions is to “find your own voice.” An appreciation and knowledge of oneself and one’s own talents and limits, “know thyself,” the famous philosopher, Socrates, once advised. In order to know oneself one must first accept oneself and secondly develop the capacity for self-reflection. From the love of oneself both a generosity of spirit and capacity for self-examination grow and it is through self-reflection that one may develop a capacity for wisdom and to actualize all that one is capable of offering.
Posted by Robert Hamm, Ph.D.
Robert Hamm Ph.D