Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute
Ancient and modern understanding of true happiness
“But are we happier?”
This is the question asked in one of the last chapters of the best-selling book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Author historian Yuval Noah Harari reviews, in his not so “brief history” (over 400 pages), the development of early human forms, going back over 2 million years to the first homo sapiens some 200,000 years ago and their eventual domination of the planet today. Harari, an Oxford Ph.D., describes the progress since the scientific revolution of the last 500 years as follows:
“The earth has been united into a single ecological and historical sphere. The economy has grown exponentially, and humankind today enjoys the kind of wealth that used to be the stuff of fairy tales. Science and the Industrial Revolution have given humankind super human powers and practically limitless energy. The social order has been completely transformed, as have politics, daily life and human psychology.
“But are we happier?”
There have been impressive medical gains in terms of child mortality and extension of life spans, as well as in the reduction of famines and poverty. Studies have shown, however, that “family and community have more impact on happiness than money and health.” Have our material advances combined with more mobility and individual independence been at the cost of community and family?
Recently, scientists have attempted to measure and study human happiness. Harari notes the most important finding is that “happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health, or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations.” He adds, “Prophets, poets and philosophers realized thousands of years ago that being satisfied with what you already have is far more important that getting more of what you want. Still it’s nice when modern research – bolstered by lots of numbers and charts – reaches the same conclusions the ancients did.”
Expectations are also important to our perceived happiness but thanks to the media and advertising, we are continually exposed to idealized images of what we should want and how we should look. We are even presented with both legal and illegal chemical means to improve happiness, although likely providing just temporary pleasure.
Nobel laureate in economics Daniel Kahneman points out a paradox in temporary experiences of pleasure or displeasure versus the long-term sense of happiness. For example, the day-to-day experiences of raising children provide many opportunities for drudgery or discouragement. From changing diapers and dealing with tantrums, to the many disappointments in the growing up years, these are not particularly inspiring. But most parents will reflect back and affirm that their children are their greatest source of happiness. Again, the important distinction between pleasure and happiness points to what Harari concludes, “happiness consists in seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile.”
While historian Harari takes a secular and scientific perspective on these issues, he does point to the philosophers, prophets and religious leaders who have taken a different approach to happiness. We know from other authors that happiness is a much different concept than individual pleasure.
Mahatma Gandhi taught for example, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” It has more to do with one’s integrity and consistency with how one feels. There is also the issue of whether we can even seek happiness as a goal, or is it something that comes to us when we are seeking and working toward something bigger than oneself. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.”
In American culture happiness is often connected to individuality and autonomy. The Declaration of Independence declares “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as a basic right. While this American tradition and law promotes individual rights and happiness, most religious expressions describe happiness in terms of duty and responsibility. It’s not so much having our desires met and being successful and prosperous that bring happiness, but being true to one’s responsibility to God and to one’s authentic self.
Buddhism teaches the liberation from suffering by rising above the craving for particular feelings. Considered one of the greatest thinkers in Islam, al-Ghazali wrote the book, The Alchemy of Happiness, in which he taught that one achieves ultimate happiness by rejecting worldliness and finding complete devotion to God.
Happiness is also a theme of one of the chapters in Rabbi Sacks’ recent book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times. He is very critical of our consumer society’s approach to pleasure as self-gratification. He writes, “a consumer society focusses attention on what we do not (yet) have, rather than on what we do,” and calls advertising the “organized creation of dissatisfaction.” He calls us to a deeper sense of happiness or joy that builds on gratitude, helping others, and concern for the common good.
So, does our modern society with its prosperity, freedoms, and opportunity for pleasure and entertainment provide us with more happiness? Perhaps the answer is not in our current society’s consumerist culture, but from the historians, economists, or scientists who have pointed us toward the poets, prophets, and priests from our ancient traditions.