What is Happiness?
For me, happiness exists as a balance of two very distinct types of contentment. The first type is a material happiness that comes from things, including food, shelter, clothing, cars, technological devices, televisions, and anything else that that physically exists and is an object of desire. The other type of happiness is much more abstract; it is a kind of spiritual or natural happiness. It comes from being at peace or from achieving a state of inner contentment. As the maxim goes, the truth lies somewhere in the middle and it is my belief that only through a perfect balance of these two sources of happiness can one be truly happy, which is, in a way, to be content.
The fourteenth Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso speaks of happiness in much the same way. When asked by Howard Cutler to speak about desire, the Dalai Lama replies, “I think there are two kinds of desire” (1000). The Dalai Lama says of the material desire I previously identified: “…I think that this kind of excessive desire leads to greed—an exaggerated form of desire, based on overexpectation.” He goes on to say, “When it comes to dealing with greed, one thing that is quite characteristic is that although it arrives by the desire to obtain something, it is not satisfied by obtaining” (Current Issues 1001). I completely agree with him on this point, that material desire can become excessive and lead to insatiable greed. However, it is my belief that happiness comes from fulfilling desire, which is, in part, fulfilling superficial material desire. But that is not all that constitutes happiness. As the Dalai Lama says, “The true antidote of greed is contentment. If you have a strong sense of contentment, it doesn’t matter whether you obtain the object or not; either way, you are still content” (1002). This kind of inner contentment comes about through the second type of happiness I spoke of, the spiritual or natural happiness.
Natural happiness or inner contentment is a rather difficult thing to explain, as it is a very abstract idea. Inner contentment cannot be found through material things. It comes from oneself, from one making peace with what they have and understanding that they cannot have everything. Howard Cutler, the Dalai Lama’s companion, asks “…How can we achieve inner contentment? There are two methods. One method is to obtain everything we want and desire… The second, and more reliable, method is not to have what we want but rather to want and appreciate what we have” (1002). It would seem that Cutler, the Dalai Lama, and I share many of the same views. Inner contentment itself comes from making peace with what we already have, moving past the desire of wanting material things.
However, it should be made clear that we are discussing happiness, not contentment. Contentment, inner contentment, certainly comes from achieving a peace with what one has and accepting that one can’t have everything. But that is only contentment. True happiness comes from a balance of both contentment and desire. It comes from striking a balance between the two methods of achieving inner contentment.
But this is only one person’s happiness. Philosophers such as Epictetus would argue that “happiness” in and of itself does not come about through these methods. Epictetus taught that: “The goal of life is ‘happiness’ or ‘flourishing life.’ The way to achieve this condition is to understand the nature of the good” (Barnet and Bedau 995). He argued that “The only true good is virtue. Yes, wealth can be useful, but it is not good or bad… Poverty… is not bad but is morally indifferent (just as wealth is morally indifferent)… The life that is happy or fruitful is the virtuous life” (Barnet and Bedau 995). Epictetus was likely speaking about happiness as a whole, or happiness for the greater good. One person’s happiness may not be the same as another’s, but I agree with Epictetus that happiness in and of itself comes about through living a virtuous life. I would call this version of happiness a “worldly contentment.” This is, of course, different from the “inner contentment” previously discussed.
Thus the question of “what is happiness” can be defined in multiple ways. For one person, it is through achieving a state of inner contentment through finding a balance between material desire of what one does not have and a desire of what one already has. In the context of worldly or societal happiness, happiness is found through living a life of virtue and thus being fulfilled, or finding contentment, in that manner. Happiness is all of these things.
Barnet, Sylvan, and Hugo Bedau. Current Issues and Enduring Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking and Argument, with Readings. 9th ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008. Print.