Epicurus in an epistle to Menoeceus:
“We must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed towards attaining it.“
I appreciate that you shuffled off this mortal coil about two and a half thousand years shy of being able to reply to this question via email, but because the whole truth lies broken into a million different opinions on the matter, a fractal question this remains. So Mr Epicurus, from your resting place in the pantheon, what, pray tell, brings happiness?
“Health of body and tranquility of mind, seeing that this is the sum and end of a blessed life. When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul.”
Then what you’re trying to say, old boy, is that providing the body and mind are in decent shape, then happiness can come about through a succession of wild nights on the piss and a healthy dose of free love thrown into the bargain?
“No, It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of revelry, not sexual lust, not the enjoyment of the fish.”
Fish? I generally round the night off with a kebab, though I’d have to admit ordering extra meat on the side is a guilty pleasure. Trouble is, this lifestyle plays havoc with my acid reflux. Makes me dyspeptic, and how can dyspepsia amount to happiness? I beseech you o wise one, is it so wrong to abide by the pleasure principle?
“Since pleasure is our first and native good, for that reason we do not choose every pleasure whatsoever, but will often pass over many pleasures when a greater annoyance ensues from them. And often we consider pains superior to pleasures when submission to the pains for a long time brings us as a consequence a greater pleasure.”
Speaking of submission, something happened while you were dead. It was called Islam and spoke broadly on the theme of happiness. Among its many facets, happiness in Islam wove pleasure into a security blanket (this in time came to be used a prayer mat). Contentment came from the feeling of security and security came from knowing that the Big Man was looking out for us. The security imperative was broadened to family, duty, and the means to put bread on the table. Shakespearean existentialism never surfaced in this worldview of happiness because the life Macbeth bemoaned as but a walking shadow (a nothingness in so far as the scale of the wall against which the tiny shadow of human life is cast is so frighteningly vast) they saw as a shadowing presence, divine and eternal provided you submit to its will.
Full of sound and fury? On occasion, yes. But signifying nothing? Not to them. There’s a plan and it was set down in writing long before you or I came along. Rejoice in the security of the Word, for it will take you where it takes you. It won’t let us down, we are assured. Thus in all that simplicity there has to be a recipe for enduring happiness.
Their prophet was reputed to have said,
“Whoever wakes up and feels safe in his flock, feels healthy in his body, and owns his daily sustenance, it is as if he owns this worldly life.”
Except you Greeks put healthy body before healthy mind. That’s called a predicate if I’m not mistaken. His followers, on the other hand, put sleep first, followed by the sheep. And then came the physical wellbeing. Then breakfast. Only then did happiness assume its rightful place. Sounds logical to me. Apart from safeguarding that feeling of certainty, the combination of keys to happiness unlocked freedom from the fear of death contaminating the unbelieving mind. Just knowing that it is all going to turn out A-okay if we simply jump through a lifetime of ritual hoops – a bit like having our devotion tested in a great long slinky – must bring reassurance and consolation, itself a probable cause of all that lazy arrogance of certainty alive and kicking in more than a few inhabitants of Arab Gulf countries.
O the anguish of uncertainty that is my making and my unmaking, Epicurus.
“When we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”
Ah! The sweet sound of reductionism. Sounds like an easy ride to happiness with simplicity at the wheel. What is the use of a key without the driver? Analogy: Pharmaceutics contain active agents that create biochemical change in the body. Excipients are inactive substances, gum or honey for instance, that combine with active agents in the delivery of those agents to the locus of pain or infection. To borrow from Mary Poppins (more of a pioneer than she’ll ever know) the excipient is the spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down. The active agents bringing about happiness, by correspondence, need excipients to arrange delivery with ease and with a smile. The solution, therefore, to the problem of how do the causes of happiness transform happiness from a notional to a felt experience? has to be both simple and soluble. Take anti-inflammatory drugs, for example. That the active substance, diclofenac sodium, has to be transported by – among other excipients – the talc on your baby’s bum, the cellulose in a plant cell, and the gelatin in your Fruit Pastilles straight to the root of the inflammation is both simple and genial. Pharmacists would no doubt concur. Simplicity is a kind of excipient, benign but effective in carrying to happiness the active substances happiness needs.
Expectation ranks high in the dharma of Buddhism as both a tyranny if too high, or a denial if too low. The Goldilocks principle applies to the wanting mind of expectations: get the temperature right by expecting no more and no less and happiness may flow. This active agent, expectation, when set to the right dosage targets happiness but only when simplicity is running the show.
Happiness ensues from turning negatives into positives. How? Case in point: cruciate ligament damage has brought my glittering prospects on the football pitch to an end. Not your average goalmouth ignoramus, while I was in rehab I learned so much about bodily articulations that I went back to school to get qualified. Now I face an ever brighter career as a physiotherapist specialising in ACLs. Unlike the last, this career should endure for more than a few seasons.
The causes of happiness now flow freely. Learning to let go of things not meant for you; learning to grasp the things that are. To paraphrase Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, have the wisdom to know the difference. Ditherers need not apply for this expedition to happiness.
Cultivate a philosophy of life. This represents a conscious and mindful approach that goes on the basis that while happiness needs working on with consistency, recognition needs to be given also to the inconsistent nature of knowing and growing, living and learning. This is affectionately known as going with the flow. The problems of epistemology mean that another predicate for happiness is to use DIY philosophy as a brake on the dizzying speed of change out there in the external medium. Philosophies can be refined, but their essential commandments should not lurch forward in a series of nervous breakdowns. Such psychic planning minimizes the emptiness and betrayal of knowing that what you believed then to be true is now what you know to have been built on bullshit. But i was sure the universe had my best interests at heart. Now i know it’s a cold and heartless bastard. It doesn’t care about me or anyone.
Learning to forgive is another borrowing from the dharma. Forgiveness is thankfulness and thankfulness brings accord. Accords bring peace, and peace with oneself brings happiness to the world. D’accord? Mai, oui. Bien sûr.
Opening one’s eyes to whatever is happening now, herein we have another. If we could all just live in the now we would become honorary surf dudes and therefore able to ride the waves without getting wiped out alongside 99.9% of species that have ever lived. Smelling the ephemeral roses while enjoying the sunset as if it were our last is an admirable cause of happiness. However, the fragrance of the rose lingers on, as does the crepuscular light of the sun long after it has set. This can lead to attachment and unduly influence expectations.
By now our set of keys is getting a bit laden down. What we need here on in is lightness of being, for which we need to jettison the superfluous parts of ourselves. This is where selflessness comes into play: to counterbalance the egoism needed to tackle the weight of expectations. Having a good cause is a wormhole to happiness. The quasi-holy status of charity and good cause is a bye to the next round. Saints in the making, if adopting abandoned animals doesn’t buy you happiness, nothing will.
Notably, satisfaction with what we have creates a virtuous updraft of I am good enough; what I have is all I will ever need. Is it apparent now why Mick Jagger kept pacing anxiously up and down the stage when satisfaction was something he couldn’t get?
In the case of who or what stirred happiness the jury finds the accused, simplicity, guilty of causation in the first degree.
It is said, in the English tradition of Benthamite utilitarianism, that happiness is a cigar called Hamlet. We know this to be a crock of s**t, as happiness in the English secular tradition, by any measure, is more in accordance with John Lennon who said it was a warm gun. Well, actually, he didn’t. He was merely perturbed into writing a song of that name through reading an article on the pleasures of killing helpless animals with hunting rifles, a feat categorically classed as not a cause of the greatest happiness to the greatest number. Be that as it may, the author is more inclined to cite Lennon’s stateside contemporary, Stephen Stills, in the cause of happiness;
“And if you can’t be with the one you love, honey
Love the one you’re with….”
So there you have it, happiness is right there if you can only reach out and touch it. Now if that be not beauty in simplicity, then let us all wallow in misery till kingdom never come.