Some thoughts on happiness

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Plato and Aristotle in The School of Athens, by Rafael.
Plato and Aristotle in The School of Athens, by Rafael.

Here we stand at the start of another year — facing a world teetering on the brink of despair over ravages of ongoing plague, climate change, political uncertainty, racked with divisiveness, violence, anxiety about an unpredictable future.

Inevitably, we ponder: What is true happiness? Who are the happiest people? Will we ever succeed in maximising this desirable state?

Various definitions suggest happiness involves feeling good, experiencing optimism, gratitude, even intense joy. Clearly, not simply the self-centred desire to do whatever one chooses, regardless of the distress or harm caused to others.

Happiness is generally linked to balancing positive and negative emotions; experiencing more positive than negative feelings — a sense of life-satisfaction — contentment with relationships, work, achievements, and other important aspects of one’s being. What the Buddha called “upeksha” — equanimity — Zen-like intuition of ultimate meaning.

The concept “wellbeing” contributes to understanding happiness; associated with wellness, vitality; what one most values, promoting a sense of purpose in life — wholeness, flourishing — in harmony with the music of the spheres.

The American Declaration of Independence affirms “the pursuit of happiness” as an inalienable right of all citizens.


Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) regarded happiness as the meaning and purpose of life; distinguishing two kinds of happiness: “hedonia”, pleasurable feelings of satisfaction from fulfilling one’s basic desires; and “eudaimonia”, derived from seeking virtue and value — investing in long-term goals; concern for others. He claimed, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”

Contemporary psychological research suggests that happy people rank high on both hedonic and eudemonic scales.

Epicureanism particularly emphasised mental pleasure as granting freedom from stress and anxiety.

During the fourth and third centuries BCE the healing sanctuary of Asclepius, God of Healing, at Epidavros, first advocated approaching human wellbeing holistically, combining therapeutic participation in athletics; exposure to beauty, in nature and the sublime cathartic potency of drama, poetry, architecture — promoting physical, psychological and spiritual thriving.

Hindu wisdom, too, envisages cosmic law — Dharma — willing the happiness of all creatures. Paramahamsa Yogananda says: “The happiness of one’s own heart alone cannot satisfy the soul; one must try to include, as necessary to one’s own happiness, the happiness of others.”

At the start of the 19th century Utilitarianism, developed by British philosopher John Stuart Mill, claimed that the universal human desire for happiness demands regarding the ethical pursuit of pleasure and the elimination of pain as the highest good and the ultimate goal of life. Mill maintained an action is ethical if it is useful in promoting the greatest happiness for the greatest number; actions inimical to the promotion of happiness are morally wrong.

So, happiness is … winning the lottery? Buying a sports car? Building a luxurious house? Going on a world cruise? Being respected by others? Believing in a God who protects and grants one’s every wish? Experience suggests the “vanity” of material wealth and possessions does not guarantee lasting contentment.


Through the ages, religious traditions have pointed to the path of supreme fulfilment, but few follow it.

Today more and more unhappy people are attracted by certain prophets and pastors preaching a so-called prosperity gospel: that God will reward faith with wealth, health and happiness. Assurances epitomised by Paula White, Donald Trump’s “God Whisperer”. With a net worth of $6 million in 2021, dressed like a participant in a fashion extravaganza, the performing televangelist of the show Paula Today entreats: “Turn to God, and your heart will be happy, your soul satisfied and your days filled with laughter in Jesus’ name!”

An appeal echoed by Shepherd Bushiri, pastor of the Southern African Enlightened Christian Gathering: despite being accused of rape and money-laundering, continually flanked by six bodyguards, leading a personality cult of many thousands, idolised by fawning devotees, crying: “Thank you, Pappa … just to know you are around makes us happy, even if we don’t see you.”

Such lifestyles hardly inspire confidence in vacuous promises of instant eternal elation — dependent on grabbing the greatest immediate personal thrill, oblivious of the wellbeing or self-fulfilment of others, even close relatives. Fallaciously harmful claims, ostensibly divinely-inspired, understandably lead to condemnation of the moral void too frequently created in the name of religion.

"Learning to cope with hardship and challenge builds resilience and determination — constructing a robust, thriving society, fostering tolerance of difference. Whereas, accumulation of material wealth and promotion of middle-class acquisitiveness, frequently fails to produce the expected euphoria."
Alleyn Diesel

Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker maintains: “Religion cannot be equated with our higher spiritual, humane, ethical yearnings. The Bible contains instructions for genocide, rape, and the destruction of families. Religions have given us stoning, witch-burnings, crusades, inquisitions, jihads, fatwas, suicide bombers, abortion-clinic gunmen ...”

British author and humanist Stephen Fry concurs: “I don’t think we should ever allow religion the trick of maintaining that the spiritual and the beautiful and the noble and the altruistic and the morally strong and the virtuous are in any way inventions peculiar to religion.”

Humanism, relying on scientific method and critical reason, shuns theism and all supernatural explanations of life on this planet, affirming our ability and responsibility to make ethical, empathetic choices for our own and humanity’s lasting wellbeing. Acknowledging the essential worth and dignity of every individual, humanists strive towards a more humane, just, compassionate, and democratic world, also expressing concern for the flourishing of the natural world.

Goals akin to Pinker’s call for education to develop the kind of maturity which recognises that although there is much beauty and joy on this unique planet, leading responsible, public-spirited lives requires effort, often accompanied by stress and anxiety.

Learning to cope with hardship and challenge builds resilience and determination — constructing a robust, thriving society, fostering tolerance of difference. Whereas, accumulation of material wealth and promotion of middle-class acquisitiveness, frequently fails to produce the expected euphoria.

The Greater Good Science Center, University of California, Berkeley, founded in 2001, sponsors research into emotional and social wellbeing, drawing on psychology, sociology, education and neuroscience. Concurring with Sonja Lyubomirsky’s description of happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful and worthwhile.” Attempting to capture “the fleeting positive emotions that come with happiness, along with a deeper sense of meaning and purpose in life …”


Research on 10 contemporary countries regarded as promoting the greatest happiness, reveals that Scandinavian countries Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Sweden, despite their long, cold, dark winters, rate highest.

Contributing factors are quoted as good educational facilities, excellent health-care insurance, long life-expectancy, outdoor activities promoting physical and mental health, maintenance of close familial and social relationships establishing a strong communal spirit.

Confucius statue in China
Confucius statue in China

Below these nations is the Netherlands, sharing most of these characteristics, and strong liberal values; Switzerland recording a strong sense of security and wellbeing provided by many cultural and recreational activities and natural beauty; New Zealand with low corruption and crime levels, promoting exquisite natural amenities such as beaches, mountains, rivers, lakes; Canada and Austria in the last 10, acclaimed for economic and social wellbeing, retaining strong family bonds.

Pinker observes: “Societies that empower women are less violent in every way.” Significantly, Nordic countries Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Iceland currently all have women prime ministers, leading the world in the global gender-gap index — almost 50% of government positions held by women.


Despite innumerable attempts at defining happiness, it remains an unstable concept — seesawing between self-centred grasping for superficial satiation of material desires, and responsible promotion of values maximising societal wellbeing.

In contemporary South Africa other complex negative factors demand consideration in our ability to recognise and foster happiness.

Clinical psychologist and associate professor at the University of Cape Town, Wahbie Long, draws attention to our urgent need to confront the “political unconsciousness” wreaking havoc with our sense of wellbeing — creating devastating alienation destroying any genuine, widespread sense of belonging — of our shared humanity. Manifesting a kind of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the wake of the trauma of apartheid.

His book Nation on the Couch, unmasks the malevolent nature of poverty, so widespread throughout the country, generating dark emotional forces, manifested in resentment, shame and envy at the impotence and exclusion created by seemingly total inability of the many to improve life’s circumstances.

The widening gap of inequality and impoverishment results in a tendency of whites retreating into white enclaves, and many blacks increasingly overwhelmed by meaninglessness and hopelessness — selves so damaged by bigotry, racism and xenophobia they are incapable of acting in their own self-interest. Culminating in destroying the very things they most wish for — burning libraries, schools and health clinics, trashing democratic processes, brutalising those they profess to love. Such fragmentation renders us incapable of establishing meaningful relationships with other human beings, and non-human creatures, unable to promote redemptive change.

Long draws on the wisdom of religious commentator Karen Armstrong who reveals the ancient threads of religious traditions where, whether referring to divinity as God, Brahman, Krishna, Elohim, Al’lah, the Almighty, Great Spirit, Confucian wisdom, highlight that true spirituality revolves round the axis of the Golden Rule: “Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.” Recognising that our emotional health and happiness is inextricably bound to the wellbeing of all we come in contact with.

"Armstrong and Long believe this goal is within the capacity of most compassionate, responsible people. As Armstrong says: 'But even if we achieve only a fraction of this enlightenment and leave the world marginally better because we have lived in it, our lives will have been worthwhile.'"
Alleyn Diesel

Armstrong’s 2009 “Charter for Compassion” calls for all people of goodwill to look into their own hearts, identify what causes them most pain, and refrain from all acts which cause such pain in others. Acknowledging that religion is not merely warm fuzzy feelings created by entering a mosque, temple, synagogue, church or any place of worship. Religion should not merely make us feel good, but make us feel unhappy, distressed by all the suffering we see and hear about in the world, motivating us towards putting compassion into action — honouring the inviolable sanctity of every human being. Empathy has the power to alleviate the agony of our fellow creatures, thwarting the voices of extremism, intolerance, distrust and hatred — transforming lives. Revitalising the spirit of loving-kindness initiates forces of harmony; healing wounds. Borrowing from Charles Dickens: turning the winter of despair into the spring of hope. Admitting that, too often, religious expression in all traditions has lost touch with its compassionate heart — the essential sacredness of life — increasing the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

Striving, as Long pleads, to dismantle barriers by treating the Other with absolute justice, respect and dignity — excising the fear creating destructive misunderstanding and alienation.

Long endorses monistic Upanishadic teaching; that Brahman (the Supreme Reality of the universe) and Atman (the individual human essence) are essentially one. What we perceive as other is not really other, but another manifestation of the Great One in whom we are all ultimately united. Putting this into practice demands constant mindfulness in the present moment. Constantly cultivating what promotes the good life: empathy, impartiality, open-heartedness, altruism — all fundamental in the reconstruction of our essential interconnectedness.

Armstrong and Long believe this goal is within the capacity of most compassionate, responsible people. As Armstrong says: “But even if we achieve only a fraction of this enlightenment and leave the world marginally better because we have lived in it, our lives will have been worthwhile.”

This, surely, is the crucible of true happiness.

• Alleyn Diesel (PhD) previously taught religious and gender studies at the University of Natal.

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