…Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

by Dr. Don Fausel

Back in the 1960s, I was the director of a summer camp for girls in the beautiful Adirondack Mountains in New York State.  For eight weeks, a hundred and fifty campers would have three meals a day in the “mess hall”, and at every meal they’d sing:  

If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands, clap, clap, if you’re happy and you know it then your life will surely show it, if you’re happy and you know it clap your hands, clap, clap.

I suspect that some of you might know the other verses. The song went from clapping your hands to stamping your feet, then your knees and on and on.  Well, it seemed to keep the campers happy, but that’s not the type of happiness we are going to pursue in this blog. Not that there’s anything wrong with frivolous happiness, but that’s not what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he wrote The Declaration of Independence.

My last blog, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Stuff, described how “our obsession with Stuff is trashing the planet, our communities, and our health.” This blog will focus on Sustainable Happiness.  Before we look at the Science of Happiness, I found it nostalgic and beneficial to briefly recall the ancient philosophers who were grappling with the concept of happiness over two thousand years ago.

First there was Socrates, a Greek philosopher and scientist who lived between 469-399 BCE.  He held a unique place in the history of happiness…as he was first known to argue that happiness is actually attainable through human effort“. He was also known for saying, that he was convinced that “…the unexamined life is not worth living”. Oh, and yes, there was the “Socratic method” (a process of questioning designed to expose lack of knowledge and clear the way to knowledge). The price he paid for his honest search for truth was death. He was convicted of corruption of youth and sentenced to die by Hemlock poisoning.

Aristotle lived between 384-322 BCE and was a student of Plato.  He is considered to be one of the greatest thinkers in the history of western science and philosophy.

One of his most influential works is the Nicomachean Ethics, where he presents a theory of happiness that is still relevant today, over 2,300 years later. The major question that he seeks to answer is what is the ultimate purpose of human existence? Aristotle’s answer is “that nearly everyone would agree that happiness is the end which meets all the requirements”.

Epicurus (341-270 BCE) was considered a renowned figure in the history of science and philosophy. He believed that “…the most pleasant life is one where we abstain from unnecessary desires and achieve an inner tranquility by being content with simple things”. His position was that our beliefs should only be those that could be verified by empirical evidence.

True to his philosophy, Epicuris spent the last few days of his life in pleasure. Although he was physically sick, he wrote this letter of his friend Idomeneus:  

I have written this letter to you on a happy day to me, which is also the last day of my life. For I have been attacked by a painful inability to urinate, and also dysentery, so violent that nothing can be added to the violence of suffering. But the cheerfulness of my mind, which comes from the recollection of all my philosophical contemplation, counterbalanced all these afflictions. And I beg of you to take care of the children of Metrodorus, in a manner worthy of the devotion shown by the young  man to me, and to philosophy.”

Even in one of the most miserable conditions I can picture, instead of dwelling on his pain, he is able to achieve happiness.

Moving forward to the present era, John Locke lived between 1632-1704 CE. He was a major English philosopher, whose political texts, “…helped paved the way for the French and American revolutions. He coined the phrase ‘pursuit of happinessin his book An Essay Concerning Human UnderstandingThomas Jefferson took the phrase and included it in the people’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence.

Locke writes:  “The necessity of pursuing happiness is the foundation of liberty. As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty. The stronger ties we have to an unalterable pursuit of happiness in general, which is our greatest good, and which, as such, our desires follow, the more are we free from any necessary determination of our will to any particular action…”.

Buddhist Monk and the Secret of Happiness

Matthieu Ricard is French writer and Buddhist monk. He has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from the Pasteur Institute under French Nobel Laureate Francois Jacob. After completing his doctoral degree in 1972 he gave up his scientific career and concentrated on the practice of Tibetan Buddhism. He is the author of several books on Buddhism, including a dialogue with his father, Jean-Francois Revel entitled The Monk and the Philosopher, which was a bestseller in Europe and translated into twenty-one languages.  He has been called the “happiest person in the world” by the media. He also volunteered as a subject in a study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on happiness, and scored above the average of hundreds of hundreds of volunteers. Here is one of his numerous TED Talks, entitled The Habits of Happiness

The Science of Happiness

Martin Seligman was one of the first psychologists to convince his colleagues to investigate more positive moods with the same enthusiasm which they had for pathologies. At that time, in the late 1990s, there were only 40 books published on happiness. In 2008 alone, 4000 books were published on happiness. Seligman is credited “… as the father of Positive Psychology and its efforts to scientifically explore human potential. In his book Authentic Happiness (2002 p. 61) he explains his three dimensions of happiness: 1) pleasure and gratification, 2) embodiment of strengths and virtues, 3) meaning and purpose. Here is an article where he explains each dimension and gives much more information about positive psychology and happiness, than a blog can offer.

I also think this TED Talk by Seligman entitled The New Era of Positive Psychology will be helpful.