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We take it as a given that we want to be happy, but what does attaining happiness entail in practice? Is there a universal secret to happiness? Is happiness a realistic goal to even reach for? Or is it like perfection—an unattainable ideal that you can strive toward but never achieve?
Happiness is an elusive concept that is assigned many different meanings. But there is one thing that is certain: Happiness is a highly desired state that everyone is striving for in one way or another. Perspectives on what the pursuit of happiness entails in practice, however, vary widely, depending on who you ask.
In this article, we’ve attempted to get to the root of the question “What is the secret to happiness?” by deconstructing perspectives from three esteemed thinkers: The Dalai Lama, Aristotle, and Jordan Peterson.
The Pursuit of Happiness
Some westerners see striving for personal happiness as a selfish act. But according to the Dalai Lama, the opposite is the case: Unhappy people are more self-absorbed than happy people, who are compassionate, helpful, and generous. That’s why it is your purpose as a human to seek happiness.
Aristotle also believed that your purpose in life is to achieve happiness. According to him, every goal you set in life, however distant it may seem from happiness, actually is in service of attaining happiness. Let’s say you join a high-intensity fitness program, which, with its grueling exercises, may not seem in service of your happiness. However, when you look at the micro-goals of joining this program, you see they serve the macro-goal of happiness: You join the program to get fit. You get fit to be healthy. You become healthy to be happier.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs echoes the idea that we’re able to do our best for others when we’re happy and explains why this might be the case. Abraham Maslow posited that human motivation is tiered: We’re first motivated to satisfy simple needs—for shelter, food, and so on—and only motivated to tend to higher-tier needs—friendship, love, and the like—once the simple needs are met. Therefore, until we reach the highest tier, self-actualization—comparable to the attainment of happiness as described by the Dalai Lama—we can’t practice generosity toward others because we’re too busy meeting essential needs.
The Dalai Lama: Happiness Is Found Within
According to the Dalai Lama, happiness is a mindset you build and isn’t contingent upon external characteristics, like wealth or status. Such factors can’t confer lasting happiness. You see this in daily life: When something great happens, like a promotion, you’re temporarily elated but soon return to your normal level of contentment. Similarly, if you suffer a setback, like a breakup, the negative feelings wear off.
In science, this phenomenon—the “wearing-off” of positive or negative emotions—is called hedonic adaptation. What’s more, when positive or negative events are repeated, they have a less pronounced effect on mood, and mood returns more quickly to the baseline. If you keep getting promoted, for instance, the promotions will leave you less happy for less time.
Since happiness is fleeting and isn’t contingent on external factors, the Dalai Lama teaches that it is something that you train, rather than attain. So, the secret to happiness lies in training your mind. There are three steps to cultivating a happiness mindset:
Step 1: Educate Yourself.
To cultivate your happiness mindset, educate yourself both about your emotions and the circumstances that give rise to them. You’ll find that feelings like anger and hatred make you unhappy and hurt you and others, says the Dalai Lama. Because they’re hurtful, you’ll know these are negative emotions and that they’re based on a misunderstanding of the world.
Step 2: Develop Your Motivation to Change.
After educating yourself on how and why you become happy or unhappy, the next step is to develop your motivation to change your mindset, advises the Dalai Lama. Simply understanding what makes you unhappy can’t alone eradicate unhappiness. You must desire to rid yourself of unhappiness and negative emotions.
Step 3: Exert Yourself to Change.
The final step of cultivating a happiness mindset is to make the effort to change. This is, in turn, done by:
- developing your sense of self-worth, regardless of external circumstances. You don’t need possessions, beauty, or titles to validate you as a human. It’s important to not attach your self-worth to such things, he adds, as they can diminish over time, meaning your self-worth does the same.
- combating negative emotions with positive ones. When negative emotions arise, counter negative emotions with positive ones. For instance, when you find yourself consumed with self-reproach over a bad test grade, tell yourself that your worth isn’t dependent on grades and practice kindness toward yourself.
TITLE: The Art of Happiness
AUTHOR: Dalai Lama
Aristotle: Happiness Is Making the Right Choices
Similar to the Dalai Lama, Aristotle believed that happiness is the ultimate goal of human life. However, he defined it differently. According to Aristotle, the secret to happiness (or goodness) lies in pursuing rational activity aligned with virtue. But what does it entail in more concrete terms? Let’s unpack Aristotle’s view on happiness:
Aristotle claims that to judge how good something is, you need to know its “defining activity”: what it (and only it) does. For example: Saying someone is a “good” violin player is a judgment of their ability to play the violin—the activity that a violin player (and only a violin player) does.
Reason (the ability to think logically and make choices based on that logic) is the defining activity of humans. All of our other actions aren’t unique to us. To list a few: Our ability to move, reproduce, fulfill basic needs, or perceive the world around us are also things that other animals (and in some cases, plants) can do.
However, no other animal or plant can think logically or make logical decisions. Humans (and only humans) can do that. This makes reasoning our defining activity, and, therefore, the standard we can use to judge how good a human is. A good human is good at reasoning. A good human, by definition, lives a good life—and a good life is a happy life. Therefore, reason is necessary for happiness.
Aristotle cautions that reasoning alone isn’t enough to be happy—it also must be correct reasoning. Someone who always makes the worst possible decisions won’t live a happy life even though they are using reason (albeit poorly).
What Aristotle means by correct reasoning is reasoning aligned with “virtue.”
Since “reasoning” means making choices, “reason aligned with virtue” means making the right choices. If we make the right choices in life, it means we’re good at reasoning—and are therefore happy.
Aristotle separates virtue into two main categories:
- Moral virtues: The virtues that define what decision is “right” in social interactions and, by extension, determine what it means to do the right thing or be a good person. Examples of moral virtues include justice, courage, and temperance.
- Intellectual virtues: These virtues are different types of knowledge that allow us to make the right decisions and excel at certain skills. For example, an excellent carpenter has the intellectual virtue of technical knowledge—knowledge that allows him to make the right decisions in his work and create good furniture.
Reasoning aligned with virtue still isn’t enough for happiness—a person also must consistently act on this reasoning. Goodness, explains Aristotle, can’t exist separate from objects or actions—it makes no sense to call a carpenter good if he’s never built anything, for example. Therefore, action is necessary for a good life.
Finally, one or a few actions isn’t enough. Aristotle claims happiness requires consistently good actions over an entire lifetime.
Jordan Peterson: The Pursuit of Happiness Is a Pointless Goal
Jordan Peterson has a rather unconventional take on happiness (as you might expect). Peterson claims that “the pursuit of happiness is a pointless goal.” Instead of pursuing happiness, you should pursue Meaning, teaches Peterson. When you act with Meaning, you will attain more security and strength than would be granted by a short-sighted concern for your own security. In turn you’ll feel better about your existence.
This begs the question: How do you pursue Meaning? “By putting it before expediency”, says Peterson. Expedience is the easy way out. Expedience rejects responsibility; it doesn’t have the wisdom or sophistication to look ahead and plan carefully; it has no courage or sacrifice. Meaning, on the other hand, regulates impulses and recognizes the value of making the world better. Meaning gratifies all impulses.
TITLE: 12 Rules for Life
AUTHOR: Jordan Peterson
What is the secret to happiness? Happiness is a loaded concept. However, perspectives on happiness, while disparate at the first glance, have a lot in common. For example, most people would agree that happiness has nothing to do with material possessions. Rather, it’s an internal state that is contingent on your outlook, more than anything else.
If you enjoyed our article about the secret to happiness, check out the following suggestions for further reading:
Most people think that happiness comes after success, and that success comes after hard work. But we’ve had the equation all wrong: Happiness isn’t the result of success—it’s the cause of it. In The Happiness Advantage, author Shawn Achor introduces this formula for success, based on research in neuroscience and the relatively new field of positive psychology. Achor offers insight as a leading expert on the connection between happiness and performance and the founder of a research and consulting firm that optimizes people’s achievement through positive psychology.
The Happiness Hypothesis explores the nature of human happiness, blending the philosophical and theological wisdom of ancient thinkers with insights from the field of positive psychology. Our satisfaction is driven by how our mental filters interpret the events in our lives, with the human brain perpetually divided against itself in the struggle between the desires created by our emotions and the attempts of reason to control them. The secret to happiness is to use reason to focus the mind away from desires that will only bring fleeting happiness, while giving in to those desires that will bring lasting fulfillment.
In The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin explains how resolving to make the smallest of changes in your everyday life—using the “good” dishes, remembering friends’ birthdays, or singing in the morning—can translate into more vivid memories, stronger relationships, and a deeper sense of happiness and gratitude in your life.
In The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris argues that humans are hardwired to relentlessly pursue happiness, but this instinct makes us miserable, leading to widespread anxiety, stress, and depression. Harris contends that the secret to happiness and fulfillment is practicing the techniques of ACT, or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. The ACT techniques help you escape the happiness trap by accepting painful thoughts and emotions as part of life, while clarifying and living your values.
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