UNTIL THE AMERICAN Declaration of Independence gave us the notion of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, people didn’t believe happiness was something that needed to be made into a specific right that they then had the ‘liberty’ to pursue. Instead, pursuing happiness is hard wired into our DNA. Its pursuit is instictive to our nature. In fact, we might question if there’s ever been anyone who acted in order to be unhappy? The pursuit of happiness is simply a human impulse and one of life’s givens.
Be that as it may, an American-style hankering after happiness is what has now been exported across the world. So whether through movies, popular culture, its capitalist, turbo-consumerist economy, or its typical go-it-alone attitude, much of the globe has brought into the American understanding of how happiness should be pursued. We all want our slice of the American pie of happiness. Yet as study after study keeps on revealing, Americans are not really happy. In fact, given all its creature comforts and consumption levels, it’s a country mired in rising levels of suicide, anxiety, depression and drug addiction. America isn’t happy … and Britain isn’t much better.
So what’s going on?
Well we might want to get our bearings straight by first asking ourselves: what do we mean by being happy? What is happiness?
WHAT IS HAPPINESS?
As odd as it sounds, the reply to it is a bit tricky. Trying to define happiness is a bit of an unhappy task. But usually, when we moderns speak of being happy, or happiness, we means something like: an emotional state of well being, characterised by feeling pleasure or showing contentment. We are aware that happiness is a state, and states come and go, and normally don’t last long. Feelings are even fleetier. We are also aware that sometimes we can outwardly be content, especially if we think this is what’s expected of us, even if we are inwardly not happy or content.
Indeed, our modern obsession with happiness might even be dooming us to failure. In an individualistic culture as our own, living by the social myth we’ve created that: ‘I must always be happy’, is a huge ask. This inevitably leads to disappointment, which then interferes with being happy. The great religious insight that true human happiness or fulfilment will not be found on the material plane alone cannot be overlooked.
MONEY CAN’T BUY ME LOVE … OR HAPPINESS!
There’s nothing new in the idea that material consumption doesn’t lead to happiness. That concept is a mainstay of just about every religion. But one doesn’t have to be religious to see how silly some of the claims that come out of our hyper-consumerist culture are. We are promised happiness with the next gadget, the next pay raise, the next designer item of clothing, or even the next sip of fizzy drink! Big buisinesses and advertisers have, for over a century, promised happiness, but have led people instead into a rat race of joyless production and consumption. And society doesn’t seem to have the collective will or imagination to do anything about it.
Currently, what all the science points to is that the reason why we don’t get happier as society gets richer, is because we chase after the wrong things in our quest for happiness.
Studies seem to repeatedly confirm the age old wisdom that the source of true human happiness are to be found in: faith, family, friendship, as well as meaningful work.
Scientists have found, again and again, that those with a spiritual practice or who follow religious beliefs tend to be happier, less anxious, and better able to handle life’s vicissitudes than those without one. Likewise, the data shows that people are happier in those cultures and societies that support social relationships as a pathway to happiness. In individualistic societies, the science suggests that people should try to focus less intensely on their desire to be happy and focus on building social relationships: visit family, go out with friends, and develop practices like compassion and gratitude; which might make us feel more connected to others. ‘Necessity may,’ it has been said, ‘be the mother of invention, but interdependence is the mother of affection.’ We humans are social creatures. But this dazzling thing called modernity, however, has ripped us out of our natural state; our evolutionary and historical social nexus, and has made us all rather anxious.
SCIENCE OF HAPPINESS PIE-CHART
Staying with a bit more science, before ending with a few short subjective, philosophical reflections. Research has also revealed that fifty percent of what in Islam is called one’s mizaj – one’s usual temperament, or mood – is determined by our genes. Some people are genetically disposed to being happier than others. Some are disposed to being more melancholic; some more gloomy or moody, and others more cheerful, reflective or humorous. Of course, we are not held hostage to our predispositions. There are things we can do to change them for the better. And that’s where the next slice of the pie comes in.
Forty percent of happiness is related to our own state of mind, we are told. And this is something we can control. So a large part of happiness depends on what we positively do, how we positively think, how we act responsibly, and how we avoid living recklessly or in the grip of addictions. Our state of mind; our attitude, and how we behave in this world can make a significant difference to our happiness. That is to say, how we act in our lives can be a game changer.
Ten percent relates to our outward circumstances. Change in weather can affect our mood and happiness, as can seasonal changes. Bereavment and tragedy are two other significant things which impact us emotionally. And there is little we can do about them, although there might be certain ways to respond to these circumstances that are better than others.
On the science of happiness, let me add this important point. Peter Singer, professor of ethics, says that ‘when ideas first come into the world, they are likely to be wooly, and in need of more work to define them sharply. That may be the case with the idea of happiness.’1 So while we might benefit from the overall facts, figures and percentages in this area, the science of happiness is still work in progress.
SHOULD HAPPINESS BE THE ULTIMATE GOAL?
Having established that we all have an inbuilt impulse to seek happiness, there seems to be a bit of a paradox – a tautology, in fact – between that and America’s Declaration of Independence which asserts that everyone is at liberty to pursue happiness. How can happiness be a right that we choose to puruse, if pursuing it is an innate part of our very disposition?
The simplest version of happiness is that it is nothing more than feeling good. This idea lies behind the philosophy that promotes it as the highest good, and the one that we as a nation have signed up to: utilitarianism. It is the philosophy of Bentham and Mill, which judges the moral worth of an action by its consequence, which is usually expressed as: ‘the greatest pleasure [happiness] for the greatest number of people.’ Thus, any action is morally good, provided it brings the person pleasure and doesn’t harm anyone else. Nietzsche disdained utilitarian thinking. ‘For Nietzsche, the idealisation of happiness puts desire for easy comfort above the aspiration for greatness … Happiness is for simple creatures, like the cat curled up in the basket or the child splashing in a paddling pool; serious adults should have higher ambitions.’2
In contrast to this consequentialist philosophy is Aristotle’s virtue ethics. This is much closer to the traditional Islamic idea of happiness (sa‘adah), It is the ethics which says that one should do an act because it is the right thing to do, regardless of what feelings do or don’t occur as a consequence. It is to live a life of nurturing in oneself those good habits or traits known as virtues. This is where eudaimonia, ‘flourishing’ or ‘happiness’, lies.
HAPPINESS IN ISLAM
The Qur’an says: Whoever does good, be they male or female, and has faith, We shall cause them to live a goodly life. [Q.16:97] This hayyatun tayyibah, or ‘goodly life’, was understood by Muslims scholars to be a life of happiness and contentment in this world.3 This is a life of worship and obedience to Allah, and duty and sincere service to others; along with ridding the soul of its spiritual vices and nurturing in it the spiritual virtues.
Some studies have shown that there’s a correlation between happiness and religious rituals. Religious rituals helps teach responsibility to oneself and to others, and can instill discipline to keep us away from addictions, drugs or alcohol, thus contributing to our overall happiness. Likewise, religious chanting also helps increase feelings of well being. In terms of rituals and chanting, one might think of the Muslim prayer (salat), as well as the act of dhikr, or remembrance of God: invoking or reverently chanting certain phrases of God’s praise, glory or greatness. All in all, religious observance, by creating certain moral boundaries and discipline, actually helps to shield people from certain weaknesses and vices which can lead to unhappiness, such as addiction to alcohol or gambling.
For the believer, however, the real summum bonnum, the highest, ultimate happiness is as the Quranic verse says: For those who act with excellence is the greatest good, and even more. [Q.10:26] The ‘greatest good’ is understood to be Paradise with all its delights and endless bliss, while the ziyadah, or ‘even more’ is the ultimate delight of the ru’ya – the Beatific Vision of God. The Prophet ﷺ told us: ‘When the people of Heaven enter Heaven and the denizens of Hell enter Hell, a herald shall call out: “O people of Paradise! There is a tryst for you with your Lord, which He wishes to bring about for you.” “What might that tryst be?” they enquire. “Did He not make heavy our scales, whiten our faces, and bring us into Heaven and deliver us from Hell?” Then the veil shall be lifted, and they shall gaze at the Face of God. By God, never will the believers be given anything more beloved to them than of gazing at Him.’4
1. Ethics in the Real World (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2016), 197.
2. Baggini & Macaro, Life: A User Manual (London: Ebury Press, 2020), 159.
3. See: Ibn Juzayy, al-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Dat Tayyibah al-Khudara’, 2018), 2:775.
4. Muslim, no.181.