The pursuit of happiness begins with defining it. We each have our own ideas about bliss, mental pictures of what would make us smile or give us satisfaction: a new dress, a sunset, a goal met.
I’ve always been intrigued by the concept of happiness. I remember an assignment in primary school when we had to write down our ambition and draw a picture: mine said “I want to be a happy man when I grow up” with a picture of a smiley face next to it. I can’t remember what the teacher’s reaction was, but I like to think that it was one of those “wisdom from the mouths of babes” moments which give adults pause for reflection. (She probably just gave me a C and moved on to the next one -- it was quite a badly-drawn smiley face. I remember my classmate had a really nice astronaut.)
My interest in the topic of happiness continued all the way to university, where I studied it from an economic standpoint, and chose one of the pioneers of happiness economics to be my supervisor. Why didn’t the Americans, the Japanese, and the Chinese become happier over their individual “glory periods” when their countries enjoyed economic success? Why did most lottery winners end up wishing they never won? Why do people who reach incredible heights of success commit suicide?
Perhaps we should go back to basics, back to defining what makes us happy. We can start by boiling down our ideas of happiness into their essence – the needs that drive them. Although our individual ideas of happiness can take on vastly different forms, our basic needs are the same: borrowing from Maslow, they are self-actualisation, esteem, love, security and physiological. A new gadget boils down to satisfying a need for esteem, a higher salary the need for security. Our needs underpin our wishes, our desires, our hopes and dreams.
Viewing happiness as the fulfilment of a need has been a liberating paradigm shift. It feels like being elevated to a higher level of consciousness of myself. The allure of many a thing has diminished after I understand exactly what part of me they are tempting, which usually leads to the subsequent realisation that that particular thing doesn’t actually meet that need at all. Ever bought something that was so overwhelming when it wasn’t yours and underwhelming when it was?
Another insight is the recognition of the danger of our physiological needs. These are a cluster of short-lived, high-satisfaction desires: food, sex, sleep, et cetera. These are the “drugs” of the lot. If we look at the usual suspects behind unhappiness, we find that they usually link back to an over-indulgence of physiological desires. Families broken over a spouse’s sexual exploits, people going bankrupt in pursuit of the physiological thrill of winning. How many have spent their lives overindulging their physiological desires, oblivious to the very end that lasting happiness cannot be obtained from them?