“Hagor shouted to someone on a mountain, “what is the secret of happiness?” the answer came back, “Celibacy, abstinence, fasting, poverty.” Hagor didn’t like that answer, so he shouted, “Is there anyone else up there I can talk to?”
We do in fact, have a culture that is obsessed with happiness, yet from different studies the definitions of what happiness is, seem to be engineered by certain bias, dogmas, creeds, prejudices, societal construct and constrictors. While Aristotelians, ethicists, and utilitarians acknowledge happiness to be philosophy in itself, and psychologists, with their different theories view it as well-being, religious institutions construe it generally to be a “state,” and a “longing.”
The Socratic conception of happiness linked it closely with virtue and knowledge (Karen, viii). For Aristotle, happiness consists in, and only in, virtuous activity (Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Edited by Roger Crisp, pg. ix). By this fact, he believed that the good should be attainable in ordinary human activity. Aristotle’s standard trichotomy: the lives of gratification, politics and study, all spoke on the nature of the human good, or human happiness (eudaimonia) (x). W. D. Ross, the great Aristotelian scholar of the twentieth century in his book, “The Right and the Good” (Oxford Clarendon Press, 1930) had summarized it all as the “right action.”
While Aristotle talked about happiness in day to day activity, Plato’s idea of the form of the good – happiness was something independent of such activity (xi). Of admiration therefore, is the “function argument” and Aristotle’s argument on “self-sufficiency.” One would begin to understand clearly that while the ‘function argument’ implies that the good of a human being, is exercising his/her capacity well (as a teacher, musician, artisan, etc.) in accordance with the virtues, the argument of ‘self-sufficiency’ on the other hand speaks of making one’s own life worthy of choice and lacking in nothing. Here we experience a common denominator between self-sufficiency and the function argument namely: that happiness is not a state of mind but rather whatever it is that constitutes the good for a human being (xiv).
It would now suffice to assert that the kind of happiness preached and taught today is embedded in Plato’s idea. Hence, we have an increasing engineering and a longing for happiness devoid of human activity – a happiness that is to be pursued but never achieved in activity.
In his “Critique of Practical Reason,” Kant argued that in order to live a moral life, men and women needed a governor, who would reward virtue with happiness. Thus, this gave birth to the notion that man was the center of religion and not the mystery of God (Karen Armstrong, “A History of God,” pg. 23, 137).
One would therefore, not be surprised at the unceasing quest to be entirely happy and to reach unperturbed, that state of Nirvana (cooling off). As Edward Conze explains in Buddhism: [In] its essence and development, Buddhists often use the same imagery as theists to describe nirvana the ultimate reality: we are told that Nirvana is permanent, stable, imperishable, immoveable, ageless, deathless, unborn, and that is power, bliss and happiness, the secure refuge, the shelter and the place of unassailable security.
Friedrich Nietzsche, that tender-hearted, lonely man, plagued by ill-health and quite different from his Superman had, in great trembling, quivering and self-contortion plead with God to return: “…Oh come back, my unknown God! My pain! My last – happiness…” . This quest for God’s come-back is even still echoed in today’s Capitalist Nigeria, where the idea of God is indeed self-sufficient a reason to be considered happy. That great Victorian poem of doubt by Alfred Tennyson in 1850, recoiled in horror from what I’d term today as Africa’s (Nigeria’s) great buffoonery, depicts even more succinctly, the lives that seem to represent men and women, who fabricate a new language for happiness:
An infant crying in the night;
An infant crying for the night;
And with no language but a cry .
Ironically, the World Values Survey had in 2003 reported that Nigerians were the happiest set of people in the world. From March 2017 however, Nigerians are now ranked sixth happiest people in Africa and occupy a lowly 95th position in the world (en. guardian.ng/news/Nigeria). According to the report, the difference in happiness levels had a lot to do with “differences in mental health, physical health and personal relationships: the single source of misery being mental illness.”
I think this should pique our interest further given the statistics by the World Happiness report in 2017 which placed Norway as the happiest country in the world followed by Denmark, Iceland as well as Switzerland. The United States meanwhile slipped to the number 14 spot due to less social support and greater corruption.
What should now command our attention is the report from Jess Staugenberg (in www.independent.co.uk/news/atheist_countries) where, “…Norway now has more people who do not believe in God than do – with 39% of atheists versus 37% of believers as well as the many Icelanders who consider themselves “convinced atheists.” In another mind blowing report, an Infinite Insight Survey, commissioned by WIN-Gallup International, conducted from 5 November 2012, found that 67% of South Sudanese were “convinced atheists” (en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographies_of_atheism. Assessed 21st Sep. 2017). This same South Sudan had been ranked the fifth happiest in Africa (m. guardian.ng) while Nigeria’s 95th position according to a Market Trends International Survey (13th Oct, 2014 – 9th Nov. 2014) had found that only 2% of Nigerians were “convinced atheists.”
Critically, the WIN-Gallup International “Religion and Atheism Index,” collected data from 57 countries in order to find out that, “the poor are more religious than the rich – and that people in the bottom income groups are 17% more religious than those in the top income groups (www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/23/most_religious_countries_least_religious Assessed 21.09.2017).
Refreshingly, despite this quest for happiness that cannot be grasped and well situated given the amazing revelations of the above statistics and reports, was Joseph Addison who summarized in simple language what the essence of happiness ought to be. He said: the grand essentials to happiness in this life are something to do, something to love, and something to hope for. This was even more re-echoed by Martin Seligman who (counteracting the pursuit of happiness with “meaning”) said aptly that “meaning comes from belonging to and serving something beyond yourself and from developing the best within you.
This new perspective was like a fortress of truth for the next generation. Emily Esfahani Smith (TED 2017), had ipso facto stated clearly that “Despair is not a lack of happiness but a lack of meaning.” She had gone further to speak about the following “four pillars of a meaningful life: 1) Belonging (which springs from love and values) 2) Purpose (which is less about getting what you want but about giving) 3) Transcendence (which could come from seeing art, reading, etc. and anything that makes us lose all sense of time and place, beyond self) and 4) Story- telling (creating a narrative about yourself for yourself. This is what Dan McAdams termed the “redemptive story,” that is embracing painful moments).
Emily Smith, understanding the implications and consequences of chasing happiness, which eventually causes unhappiness has spoken to us, and to the next century. For indeed happiness is like a butterfly. The more you chase it with a purpose, a goal, the more it will elude you. But if we should only turn our attention to the things that matter, it comes and softly sits on your shoulder.
According to Professor Edward Glaesar, people constantly make choices that decrease their happiness, because they have also more important aims (en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/happiness). And at the end of this research, I now dare to say that one of such ‘important aims’ has been the “pursuit of happiness” which is just a meaningless expression as “the King of Africa.”
Author: David Francis E.
Theme: The Philosophy of Happiness
Contents: Introduction; The Conceptions Happiness; Happiness and Religious Beliefs/Analysis and Conclusion