General Happiness

Changing Definition of Happiness – The Fundamental Problem

Happiness has undergone major changes in definition over the centuries. Happiness was considered a consequence of doing good or being good. But over the past couple of centuries, the popular understanding of happiness has plummeted to just feel-good.

The ‘happiness’ movement started only in the late 1800s, as per Peter N Stearns, a renowned historian, in an article in Harvard Business Review, titled ‘The History of Happiness’ Jan-Feb 2012

Today the Western world is caught up in a culture of happiness, but it wasn’t always so. It was only in the 18th century that the values of the Enlightenment ushered in the notion that happiness was the attainment of a worthy life. Since then the pursuit of happiness has gained momentum and spread to every aspect of behavior, from religion and politics to work and parenting.

Greek philosophers used the word Eudaimonia as the goal of human thought and action. Eudaimonia is usually translated as happiness. Eudaimonia involves being virtuous with the backing of reason. Greek philosophers, therefore, defined happiness as being virtuous and moral; by doing good. Buddha’s Noble Eight Fold Path is also about doing good. If any feel-good does accrue as the byproduct of being virtuous, it was considered incidental.

In the last few decades, the definition of happiness has become exclusively feel-good. A nominal search for the synonyms of happiness throws up words like pleasure, fulfillment, contentment, well-being, peace, joy, and bliss. Each one of these words conveys the emotion of feel-good – bottom line is that they only describe feel-good. As a result, most of us believe that feel-good is the primary goal of life. An emotion that is a possible byproduct of doing good becomes the purpose of life – the central reason for our actions. Moreover, it has now become conventional wisdom because we are bombarded by the message, “Are you happy? You should be happy. If you are not happy, there is a problem.”

Many eminent psychologists recognize this fixation on happiness (feel-good) as a major psychological disorder.

Feel-good was not the focus of the earlier definitions because there is no guarantee that being virtuous will always give a feel-good. A father works double shifts in order to pay his son’s college fees, but is there a guarantee that the son will live a  life that will make the father happy? He may even become a criminal. A person helping his neighbors may not get anything in return. Hence doing the right thing does not always guarantee feel-good.

As generations go by, there is a growing fixation with feel-good. Since it is not guaranteed by doing good, there is a tendency to look for short-cuts where feel-good is guaranteed. The short-term fixes, like buying luxuries, partying, and entertainment, provide a greater guarantee for feel-good even though they may be momentary. The ‘happiness’ (pleasure) through products/experiences can give a temporary ‘high’ without the intermediary stage of doing good. This approach becomes an addiction because the temporary ‘high’ is always followed by a ‘low’, which can only be countered by another short-term feel-good. Life becomes one continuous party and an addiction to pleasure. This is how the pleasure aspect of the definition of happiness operates.

However, the happiness brigade (books and happiness Gurus) talk about how we need to go beyond the feel-good of products/experiences. The prescription to feel-good is to have good relationships, to find meaning in life, and through acts of goodness. This feel-good is described by words such as fulfillment, contentment, peace, joy, and well-being. But unfortunately, the happiness brigade also sell feel-good. The happiness brigade insists that our final goal is feel-good, for which we have to do good actions. The happiness brigade also portrays feel-good (fulfillment, contentment, and well-being) as the central goal of life and not as an unguaranteed byproduct of doing good.

To sell a book, product, experience or a concept, the seller has to also tell you that your happiness is most important for you; you are entitled to the feel-good; and you should pursue it – also glorifying selfishness in the bargain. To be happy, the mantra becomes – be loving, compassionate and empathetic. However, the mantra is given with the back-drop of glorified selfishness. The paradox is the prescription to be ‘selfless’ in order to selflessly pursue happiness.

In my experience, I found it impossible to be genuinely loving, understanding, compassionate and empathetic because the final goal of ‘my feel-good’ ensured that I remained selfish. When I am selfish, can I be genuinely loving? That was not possible and so I unconsciously started pretending to be good. I started to act loving, compassionate, and understanding, without internally becoming good. I became a good actor.

In my marriage, my wife could easily see through my pretenses and that led to conflicts. If we had accepted the pretense as a natural part of the relationship, we would have drifted apart and it would have led to apathy. This is what happens in most relationships – conflicts or apathy. Hence, I came to the conclusion that in order to live an authentic life, we have to be genuinely good and not just act well.

When we SAY NO TO HAPPINESS, we become less selfish and we start becoming genuinely good. But it is not as easy as it seems, because this will become just another new technique until we really realize how ‘happiness’ is a hyped-up goal. Even though happiness is elusive, at least it existed as an illusory goal. The paradigm shift of removing happiness as our goal creates a sense of purposelessness. This purpose vacuum has to be filled with an alternate goal because it is impossible for us to live without a goal. Otherwise, we will switch back to our goal of ‘happiness’. This alternate goal is elaborated in the book SAY NO TO HAPPINESS.

The book is about how to stop pretending and to become genuinely loving, selfless and understanding. This approach of ‘SAY NO TO HAPPINESS’ is about authentic leadership, relationships, parenting, spirituality – in short, every aspect of our life. It is a counterintuitive approach to living a far more fulfilling life and is founded on my experience of jumping out of the happiness paradigm.

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