In 2018, I acquired Darren Brown’s self-help book Happy and also enrolled on edX’s The Science of Happiness MOOC focusing on the science of positive psychology, which explores the roots of a happy and meaningful life.
Created by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, the course largely suggests that happiness is inextricably linked to having strong social connections and contributing to something bigger than yourself—the greater good. I was consequently keen to learn more about the practical strategies for tapping into and nurturing my own happiness, including trying several research-backed activities that foster social and emotional well-being, and exploring how happiness changes throughout your life. There were some really thought-provoking articles to read for the first section of the course.
The concept of happiness began in the ancient world, at that time happiness was not something you could control; it was in the hands of the gods. The ancient philosophers developed their own approach namely that happiness is never simply a function of good feeling but rather of living good lives, lives that will almost certainly include a considerable amount of pain.
“Happiness is a life lived according to virtue.Aristotle
The ancients tended to agree that very few would ever succeed in being happy.
“In the prevailing Christian understanding, happiness can occur in one of three circumstances. It can be found in the past in a lost Golden Age, in the Garden of Eden. It can be revealed in the future—the millennium when Christ will return and the Kingdom of God will genuinely be at hand. Or we can find happiness in heaven, when the saints shall know the “perfect felicity,” as Thomas Aquinas puts it, the pure bliss of union with God. Strictly speaking, this is the happiness of death. And so in the dominant Christian worldview, happiness is not something we can obtain in this life. It is not our natural state. On the contrary, it is an exalted condition, reserved for the elect in a time outside of time, at the end of history”. (Darrin M. McMahon, Ph.D., is a professor of history at Florida State University and the author of Happiness, A History).
The turning point and the link to our current understanding of happiness began in the 17th and 18th centuries when John Locke declared that the “business of man is to be happy.”
“In Locke’s time, men and women in the West dared to think of happiness as something more than a divine gift, less fortuitous than fortune, less exalted than a millenarian dream. For the first time in human history, comparatively large numbers of people were exposed to the novel prospect that they might not have to suffer as an unfailing law of the universe, that they could—and should—expect happiness in the form of good feeling, and pleasure as a right of existence.”
Today, science is rediscovering the validity of ancient perspectives on happiness highlighting that there are important connections between hope and happiness or between gratitude and forgiving and happiness.
McMahon’s article comes to this important conclusion
“I would suggest that something of value may have been lost or forgotten in our transition to modern ideas of happiness. We can’t feel good all the time; nor, I think, should we want to. Nor should we assume that happiness can be had without a certain degree of effort, and possibly even sacrifice and pain. These are things that the older traditions knew—in the West and the East alike—and that we have forgotten.”
“Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.”
19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill