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What is happiness?

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292.  Thu Oct 16, 2003 7:35 pm Reply with quote

Prompted by reading a piece called 'Chin’s Thirty Three Happy Moments' on the website of an online magazine called 'The Idler'.

Chin Shengt’an was a 17th century playwright who once found himself stranded with a friend in a temple for ten days because of a rainstorm. While thus secluded, the pair compiled a list of the truly happy moments in life. The wonderful thing about Chin’s Happy Moments is their lack of piety. Material pleasures are not rejected in favour of loftier ones.

The magazine asked people to email in their own ideas, most of which are less interesting than Chin's. You can read these - and Chin's at the bottom - on this link:

But it got me wondering how one defines happiness. Do we think of it as a generalised feeling of contentment? Of high peaks of experience? Material enjoyments or the abstract enjoyment of an intellectual pursuit?

I am, generally speaking, a happy person, but sometimes I can be pierced by a moment of pure joy. An example of this happened once when I was walking along one winter day when the sky was clear and deep blue and I saw the bare branches of a tree outlined like lace against it. That was it. Such moments are precious, and seem to be divorced from general happiness and contentment.

Another website on which I found Chin's moments discourses interestingly on the subject:

I have always assumed that the end of living is the true enjoyment of it. It
is so simply because it is so. I rather hesitate at the word "end" or "purpose. "
Such an end or purpose of life, consisting in its true enjoyment, is not so much a
conscious purpose, as a natural attitude toward human life. The word "purpose"
suggests too much contriving and endeavor. The question that faces every man born
into this world is not what should be his purpose, which he should set about to achieve,
but just what to do with life, a life which is given him for a period of on the average
fifty or sixty years? The answer that he should order his life so that he can find
the greatest happiness in it is more a practical question, similar to that of how
a man should spend his weekend, than a metaphysical proposition as to what is the
mystic purpose of his life in the scheme of the universe.

Anybody else got some interesting thoughts on what constitutes happiness?

294.  Fri Oct 17, 2003 3:33 am Reply with quote

Isn't Genghis Khan supposed to have defined happiness as hearing the wailing of the widows of his enemies?

I should think that it would be necessary to distinguish "being happy" from "feeling happy"; we know that a feeling of happiness can be induced in various ways (drugs, surgery, electrical stimulus of the brain, lies, etc) which have nothing to do with the existence of a benign set of circumstances, and on the other hand we know that people who possess every material and emotional comfort can still be clinically depressed, and that no change in their circumstances short of medical intervention will alter that.

For myself, I regard contentment (ie an absence of unhappiness) as synonymous with happiness, but I'm aware that it's only (happy) chance which predisposes me to do so. It also disqualifies me from having anything very insightful to say on this subject.

318.  Sun Oct 19, 2003 5:55 am Reply with quote

When purpose has been used to achieve purposelessness, the thing has been grasped.

319.  Sun Oct 19, 2003 5:57 am Reply with quote

If you observe a really happy man, you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his son, growing double dahlias in his garden, or looking for dinosaur eggs in the Gobi desert. He will not be searching for happiness as if it were a collar button that has rolled under a radiator.

320.  Sun Oct 19, 2003 6:00 am Reply with quote

I have now reigned about fifty years in victory and peace, beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honours, power and pleasure, have waited on my call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity. In this situation I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot: they amount to fourteen.
ABD-ER-RAHMAN III, King of Spain 960AD

321.  Sun Oct 19, 2003 6:01 am Reply with quote

If I could drop dead right now, I’d be the happiest man alive!

Anyone up for a QI Quotations thread?

516.  Wed Oct 22, 2003 7:22 am Reply with quote

Happiness is a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.


517.  Wed Oct 22, 2003 7:25 am Reply with quote

If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.


519.  Wed Oct 22, 2003 8:20 am Reply with quote

Love the last one Jack.

I saw another quotation today, attributed either to Oliver Wendell Holmes or John Mason Good:

Happiness consists in activity. It is a running stream, not a stagnant pool.

This seems a peculiarly Western view of happiness to me - what happened to the bliss of meditation in that scenario?

(While thinking about this, and randomly Googling, I also came across a website of Catholic teachings which concluded that happiness did not consist in wealth, honour. fame or glory, power, any 'good of the body', pleasure, any 'created good' or even in any 'good of the soul' (interestingly subtle argument on the last one, which you can read on their website ) and tried to sell me a Catholic Family Bible in ivory leather for $89.95, apparently not seeing any irony in this.)

Aristotle tells us (Google tells me) that a happy man is the man who has everything he really needs, and sundry other quotations seem to support that thesis. 'Really needs', of course, is the interesting part of Aristotle's statement - I have nagging at the back of my mind a quotation that I can't source at the moment, saying that happiness consists not in having much but in wanting little, which I think Aristotle would go along with.

It's interesting that the various quotations I came across, from people who have lived across a wide span of time, all seem to hover around this central point:

Very little is needed to make a happy life. It is all with yourself. -Marcus Aurelius
Supreme happiness consists in self-content; that we may gain this self-content, we are placed upon this earth and endowed with freedom. --Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Remember happiness doesn't depend upon who you are or what you have; it depends solely on what you think.--Dale Carnegie

Some of the quotations go on to explore the consequences of being happy insofar as they affect what we do:

Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.
--Mahatma Gandhi

Yesterday is but a dream, tomorrow but a vision. But today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness, and every tomorrow a vision of hope. Look well, therefore, to this day.--Proverb

Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.--Buddha

But I think one that I like best on this theme is:

Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else. -James Matthew Barrie, Sr.

Frederick The Monk
521.  Wed Oct 22, 2003 8:28 am Reply with quote

Happiness is good health and a bad memory
Ingrid Bergman

522.  Wed Oct 22, 2003 8:31 am Reply with quote

Great stuff, Jenny, thank you.

I think the point about happiness being discovered in activity is, paradoxically, the SAME as it being discovered through sitting still.

Both meditation and throwing oneself into something one really enjoys have the effect of stilling 'the mind' (the word we use for the little chattery person in the head who worries, regrets and fantasises).

Meditation is a conscious attempt to become unselfconscious; activity has the unconscious effect of achieving the same thing.

Or something...

I :o}

524.  Wed Oct 22, 2003 8:33 am Reply with quote


So THAT'S what happens when you try to be a clever-clogs...

Sorry about that.

Kieran, helpppppp!

568.  Wed Oct 22, 2003 6:59 pm Reply with quote

I totally agree that happiness can only exist when the fretting, uneasy side of your daemon is stilled. However, when your daemon is deeply engaged, active and eager, whether in creation or simply cerebral activity, writing, mathematics, music, or whatever, even fantasising; is that not one of the purest forms of happiness?

570.  Wed Oct 22, 2003 7:09 pm Reply with quote

I agree Frances - follows the line of thinking of the Barrie quote about nothing being work unless you would rather be doing something else.

577.  Thu Oct 23, 2003 4:17 am Reply with quote

On the other hand:

No activity achieves dignity until it can be called work.

Beryl Markham

who was interesting in a number of ways, one of them being that she wrote an autobiography which didn't mention either of her husbands or her son.


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