Happiness is a positive human emotion. The feeling can be synonymous with joy, contentment or excitement. For thousands of years, philosophers, theologians and, most recently, scientists have explored the basic components of happiness and methods of obtaining it.
According to Buddhism, an understanding of happiness can only come from an understanding of suffering. People must control their minds and meditate on the present, appreciating the here and now. The opening verses of the Dhammapada discuss the ideal approach to happiness: "All that we are is the result of what we have thought. It is founded on our thoughts. It is made up of our thoughts. If one speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows one, like a shadow that never leaves."
According to the Buddha, happiness is not dependent on material gain or physical pleasure; rather it is a mental state of being. His eightfold path to happiness involves the refinement of human thought and interaction through understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration.
Confucius, a Chinese philosopher, emphasized the importance of maintaining social relationships and prioritizing humanity. Confucius once said, "Isn't it a joy to study and regularly practice? What's more, isn't it a joy to meet comrades from afar?" Learning about humanity and then actualizing it within ourselves is a path to happiness.
Mencius, a follower of Confucius, elaborated on certain principles of Confucianism and is deemed by many an innovator of positive psychology. According to Mencius, every individual contains the seeds of virtue and the potential for great humanity. Compassion and an ability to identify with the plight of others is a direct catalyst of happiness. Virtue and happiness are connected.
Mencius said: "The myriad things are complete in us. There is no greater joy than to reflect on ourselves and become sincere. There is nothing closer to humanity than to vigorously practice shu (consideration for others)."
A contemporary of Mencius who lived on the other side of the world, Aristotle devoted much of his philosophy to the topic of happiness. His work Nicomachean Ethics explores the purpose of human existence and narrows everything down to altruism. A person must act for the sake of the action itself, not for any ulterior motive.
According to Aristotle, happiness is not a momentary pleasure, rather it is the ultimate goal of one's life, the reaching of one's potential. He said, "for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy."
During the 19th century, Darwin's theories of natural selection left little room for the benevolent Creator, thereby breeding an unprecedented pessimism and lack of faith. William James, a psychologist and philosopher who lived in the same century, went through a major bout of depression. James referred to this depression as a "crisis in meaning," one in which he could not see the purpose in life or the presence of free will. Only once he realized that free will is "the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts" could James understand that happiness is a direct result of free will.
No matter what economic or social background a person comes from, he can always choose to be happy because everyone is endowed with free will. Happiness is the offspring of a proactive life. James said, "Believe that life is worth living, and your very belief will help create the fact."
Ed Diener is a top researcher in positive psychology in modern American life. Diener notes that contrary to popular belief, one's external environment or condition does little to affect one's happiness. He noted that one's financial income has no correlation with one's state of happiness: "Over the past 50 years, income has climbed steadily in the United States, with the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita tripling, and yet life satisfaction has been virtually flat. Since World War II there has been a dramatic divergence between real income (after taxes and inflation) and life satisfaction in the United States."
In a study on teenagers, Diener noted that the adolescents who are least vulnerable to depression are those who maintain relationships with friends and family. He claims that each individual is responsible for his or her own happiness in a process he terms "subjective well-being." In his book Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, Diener emphasizes the correlation between happiness, attitudes, goals and activities.
Happiness promotes good health, meaningful relationships and good work performance. People should set realistic expectations regarding their happiness and not avoid negative emotions, as these may contribute to a more enduring happiness.