Entry #4: "Happiness" According to 5 Great Thinkers

We throw the H word around a lot, perhaps more so than we’d like to. We’ve also scoured through tons and tons of website, self-help books, TED speakers and Instagram influencers to truly understand the concept of happiness. Not surprisingly, we fail most of the time. We get perked up and excited for about 5 minutes, then we forget what we had read.

It’s understandable because happiness means different things for each of us. And it is one of those things that gets further away the moment we think we’re getting close to it.

Thankfully for us, a lot of great thinkers over the past centuries have mulled over the concept of happiness and they’ve dedicated their lives trying to understand how the world works. From the field of philosophy and psychology, although they provide different insights to answer it, the end result for us should be quite similar; it should help us understand how we can be happy.

Here are some concepts that they have come up with in relation to happiness:

Aristotle – Happiness is a goal, not just a feeling

According to one of the forefathers of philosophy, happiness is the ultimate desire and ambition of all human beings, whether acknowledged or not. This concept of happiness as a goal is still relevant for many of us to date.

While utilitarians believe that life is about maximising pleasure and minimising pain for the largest number of people, one distinctive characteristic of Aristotle’s happiness concept is that it’s achieved through acts of virtue. He argued that the differentiating feature of a human and an animal is that human has rational capacity. Since getting pleasure and avoiding pain is pursued by all animals, it should follow that we as humas need to pursue something bigger, something more profound. This is what he coined as “eudaimonia”

Eudaimonia is more than just fleeting feelings of bliss like watching cay videos. It is more objective than that. It has little to do with how we feel. It is about how we act and behave. His philosophy revolves mostly around how we can live our best life through good characters or virtues. The more we exercise our virtue, the better we will become as a person, and as a result of that, we would be happier.

Epicurus – The modest life

Contrary to modern interpretation of epicureanism as the enjoyment of finer things in life, the original idea of happiness stated by Epicurus is tto live simply. According to Epicurus, the purpose of living is to maximise pleasure and avoid pain. The best way to live is to be kind, be surrounded by loved ones, and avoid suffering. Wanting things beyond our means will only cause us anguish and therefore, not to be pursued. Epicureanism encourages us on being practical and look at what we already have at our disposal to be happy; the people around us and the memories of past pleasures we can access at any times.

While it’s easy to mix up Epicurus’ idea of happiness with complacency, it’s worthy to note that it is up to us to catalogue what counts as pleasurable and painful experiences. Getting yelled by your boss can count as a “pleasurable” experience if you see it as an opportunity for growth and you genuinely enjoy the learning. But if you don’t, then you need to remove yourself from that situation.

If we are to practice the Epicurean way of living, we would try to simplify our lives; first starting with our thoughts. We should avoid overthinking and try to simplify our experiences, untangling the web of complicated behaviors in our day-to-day. Who knows, you might even start to pursue minimalism or Marie Kondo-ism as a way to declutter your environment as well.

Seneca – Internal locus of control

Stoicism has really picked up in the 21st century, despite being a concept concocted originally in the BC era. Seneca was one of the populariser of stoicism; to put it simply, it teaches us that we shouldn’t worry ourselves of things that are beyond our control. To be a stoic, we need to have an internal locus of control, in which we need to be concerned only of our own actions and their consequences.

Having an internal locus of control not only helps us with self-awareness in the midst of a virus outbreak as outlined here , it will also help us stay rooted in ourselves. When we stop worrying over so many things, our mind will be a more peaceful place, and this will help us focus on things that makes us happy in life.

Read more on Viktor Frankl’s thought on achieving happiness through purposeful living

Viktor Frankl – Fulfillment through our search for meaning

As discussed in the previous entry, Frankl believes that finding happiness is all about finding a purpose in our lives; or rather, how we assign them to our lives.

He has applied his own concept of logotherapy to his own experience in a Nazi concentration camp. He survived countless hours of suffering simply by having a purpose of seeing his wife again and the dream of finally publishing his psychotherapy study.

The theory in itself is of course, more complex than what it is at surface level. However, it is worthy to note that not all pursuit of meaning may lead to happiness. This is where virtue as emphasised by Aristotle and common sense come into play. If you grew up in a bad neighborhood, you might be tempted to think that your purpose in life is to be a drug kingpin so you can be rich and have control of your fate. While you may gain happiness in a short or medium term, you are inflicting more pain to others and most likely yourself in the long run.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche – Will to power

Nietzsche’s concept is perhaps the most interesting, and most complex among the other concepts of happiness in this list. It is all encompassing and mostly confusing.

First of all, he rejects determinism. We definitely have free will. Now, what we use this will for is the key feature in his philosophy. According to Nietzsche, we all have an intrinsic goal of asserting our dominance over others. Happiness is about winning the ego war. While it may seem shallow and petty (he’s a cynic after all), let’s dig a layer deeper to understand what he means by this.

A most common example to portray will to power is obviously among politicians and the upper class society. Important decisions are made to boost their social and economical standing in the society. But let’s take a look at a more common, proletarian example.

Say you are just entering high school and egos are shooting through the roofs everywhere you look, and naturally you want to fit in. This seems like a situation where you don’t want to display too much ego, because you might risk being excluded. With great efforts, you have found yourself a great group of friends to hang out with. What’s the next thing to do? Once you have a point of reference, you want to start being an individual again. You want to be noticed. You want to break away from your group’s stereotype and assert that you are “above and beyond” it.

This shows that we have an innate desire to be identified as an individual by others. According to Will to Power, even a monk who has removed themselves from society has the underlying ego to be a better person than the rest of society. So by his logic, if you want to pursue happiness, you should start asserting yourself in areas where you want to stand out, and you will feel rewarded when you are satisfied with your assertion.

Now that you have seen the different concepts of happiness, which one do you resonate with? Or are you still figuring out what it means to be truly happy? Take a lesson or two from Epicurus; live simply and don’t overthink.

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