What is Happiness?
By: Shaheed Ayatullah Murtuza Mutahhari
The question of happiness is one of the oldest of the philosophical topics of mankind, which belongs to the field of practical philosophy. The learned men of ethics and sociology are engaged in the discussion of its nature. conditions, causes, barriers, and its inconsistencies; and if the question of happiness and adversity is raised in speculative philosophy and theology, it is related to one of the minor points of this problem, that is, whether happiness (as well as adversity) is confined to the physical and material, or it is of the following two types:
(i) Physical and material happiness
(ii) Spiritual and mental happiness
Theologians propound this question for this reason that they wish to prove spiritual and mental happiness and adversity to be much greater and more considerable.
Bu-Ali (Avicenna) in section eight of "Esharat", and Sard-ol-mot'ale-hin in vol.4 of "Asfar,, in propounding this matter, consider only this branch of the question of happiness, and have disregarded other aspects of it. On the other hand, we have not so far come across a comprehensive discussion of this topic in Islamic and non-Islamic books of philosophy.
Although what the reader meets in this essay cannot be considered a complete discussion of this topic, yet it may be regarded as a brief survey. The questions raised here are as follows:
1 - What is happiness?
2- Happiness and pleasure
3- Is man by nature desirous of happiness?
4 - Happiness and aspiration.
5 - Happiness and satisfaction.
6 - A social discourse.
7 - Types of happiness.
8 - Stages of happiness.
9 - Factors and causes of happiness.
10 - An overview of a series of discussions.
11 - Does man need guidance to attain happiness?
At first both happiness and adversity seem to be clear in meaning, and if there is an ambiguity and difficulty, it is related to other problems, for, if you ask anyone whether he desires happiness, he will without hesitation give an affirmative answer. And if you ask: "What about adversity?" you will undoubtedly hear a negative answer. No one pauses before this question, and no one says: "Explain the meaning of happiness and adversity first, so that I may see which one I desire," Therefore, it is evident that both happiness and adversity have a clear meaning for all people, and so they are among the matters which need no definitions.
But I should say that it is not enough to suppose that happiness needs no definition. Many ideas seem like that at first, but as soon as we employ the Socratic Method, and compare that meaning with other meanings which are close to it and analyse it, we see that clarity gradually gives its place to a kind of ambiguity and indefiniteness.
Happiness is for many people synonymous with pleasure, tranquility, success, attainment of desires, joy, satisfaction with the course of events and similar others. But as soon as we compare happiness with each of these, we see that those are appropriate in meaning, yet these ideas are not quite the same. Therefore, it is necessary first to make their comparisons so that later on during these comparisons we find a definite meaning for happiness.
There is no need to discuss the literal root of happiness and pleasure, to see whether happiness is used in its special cases with the meaning of assistance, so that a happy person may supposedly be one who is helped by the turn of the world, while adversity may be considered its opposite, or that word has from the beginning had the senses of distress, pain and misfortune, while happiness was taken to mean its opposite, that is, freedom from pain and hardship.
Apparently from a lexicological point of view, we cannot find two opposite meanings for these two words, but in their general and particular usage they are placed on opposite sides, as they are so in the case of the Qur'an: "A day will come when no one speaks without His permission, and some are fortunate and some unfortunate; those who are unfortunate groan in the fire.... while those who are fortunate are in heaven." (11: 104-5).
Happiness and Pleasure
Happiness and pleasure are very close together (like adversity and pain) but they are not synonymous and securing pleasure is not the same as attaining happiness. In the same way bearing pain is not absolutely adversity, for a pleasure may be followed by a greater pain, as a pain may be the prelude to a greater and more important pleasure. It is also possible that getting a pleasure causes greater and more important pleasures to be lost, or a pain prevents greater and more severe pains.
In all these cases the reality of pain and pleasure is preserved, that is, we should not suppose that a pleasure which prevents a greater pleasure, or causes a greater pain is no longer a pleasure. But such a pleasure is not happiness. In the same way a pain which is the prelude to a greater pleasure or checks a greater pain must not be viewed adversely.
Happiness is applied to something the attainment of which causes no regret, and adversity is tolerating something which cannot by any means be accounted for; that is, man has adopted the sense of happiness for his final desire, and adversity for its opposite point, namely, what he should always avoid.
In other words, happiness is man's unconditional wish, and adversity is his unconditional abhorrence. Therefore, if a person or a faith or school claims bringing happiness to mankind, it means: "What I claim to show direction for, is not something better than which could be supposed." But pleasure is not so. If someone claims giving a pleasure, whether it involves a greater pain or the loss of a greater pleasure the case is different.
Pleasure is related to a special power and ability of men or animals, but happiness depends on the whole powers and abilities and living aspects of man. Pleasure is the ruler of the pleasant and unpleasant, while happiness is the ruler of what is advisable and inadvisable. Pleasure is related to the present, while happiness extends equally over the present and future. Pleasure as well as pain arc related independently to every aspect of man's life, while happiness is an overall matter.
For this reason it is easy to distinguish pleasure and pain, while it is very difficult and sometimes impossible to distinguish happiness and its opposite. A psychologist who recognizes only rnental processes, is able to express an opinion about pain and pleasure, while expressing an opinion about happiness and adversity is a philosopher's concern, since he claims to know the world, the society and rnan. The kind of opinion of that philosopher about happiness and adversity comple1ely depends on his knowledge of men and of the world. For this reason the suggestions of philosophers about happiness are so very much different from one another. One of them considers happiness as securing pleasure, while another thinks it to be abandoning pleasure and killing the will.
Someone pays attention to material things, and another to the spiritual. One of them considers this moment important, and another chooses far-sightedness as his motto. But as pleasure and pain arc the special products of the self, they are subject to investigation and testing, and it is easy to reach unanimity of opinion about them.
The reason why people, in spite of their claim that they desire happiness, follow different goals and choose different ways of attaining them, is this that they differ in the personal way of thinking or their attachment to a particular school or faith concerning man and the world. There is also another reason for this, which will be discussed in the question as to whether happiness is absolute or relative.
Is Man by Nature Desirous of Happiness?
The difference which we mentioned between happiness and pleasure shows that pleasure is one-sided and happiness many-sided. Pleasure is one aspect of the self's special product and subject to the conscience, while happiness is a general and independent matter which is obtained by the comparison and calculation of all pains and pleasures.
The idea of happiness has occurred to man by his ability to compare pains and pleasures and study their various aspects, and adopt a way of securing greater and better pleasure and enjoyment on the whole and reduce to naught all pains and sufferings. But pleasure is a mental state, depending on the mildness of something or a power, or an ability or a human organ. So, pleasure and pain are distinguished by nature and instinct.
But instinct and nature do not distinguish happiness and adversity; this is done by intellect.
Whether intellect directly claims to make this distinction or guide man to the faith or school which leads to happiness, anyhow the act of distinguishing happiness is not instinctive.
Therefore, when it is said that everyone is by nature desirous of happiness and always seeks it, it is not true. What people seek is pleasure. We can say someone seeks happiness, whether he chooses the right way or not, only when he makes a proper calculation and compares the losses and benefits and chooses a way from among them .
So, in answer to this question as to whether man by natured desires happiness, it must be said that if it is meant that all people always run after lost happiness, but only they often err in their distinct ion, it is not right, for, people often follow their nature, not their intellect , and desire pleasure, not happiness. And if it is meant that if human intellect distinguished his happiness and naturally sought it, it would be a correct statement.
Happiness and Aspiration
Certainly everyone has a number of wishes and has a great desire to attain them. If he is asked to describe in what things his happiness lies in order to attain them, he would present his needs and aspirations.
Some people suppose that happiness is the attainment of aspirations and success in desires, and whoever reached them all has attained perfect happiness, and he who has not attained any of them is quite unhappy; or he who attained some of his aspirations, has to the same extent secured some happiness in that shape of its. Thus, he has not only not been treated unfairly, but has also been granted benefits as a member of an unfortunate class.
But we may say that happiness is the attainment of maximum possible enjoyments and the banishment of maximum pains or minimizing them. In other words, happiness is derived from an harmonious use of one's material and intellectual resources, in the process of overcoming any situational obstacles and contradictions leading to pain and suffering.
This assumes, of course, that one is aware of his inborn abilities and is able to recognize the possibility of using the same, as provided for in the natural order of the world of creation. In this context, it is notable that sometimes an exploited or weak section of people may decide that they are happy with the material advantages that their exploiters find it necessary to extend to them.
Actually, their happiness cannot be real while they allow themselves to be exploited by the shrewd opportunists and self-seekers. The injustice that is caused in this way is much more tragic than that produced by dissatisfaction, for, the injustice that is felt by the other party, is like a painful illness which compels a patient to seek a remedy, but an injustice like the above is like a painless sickness which prevents the patient from seeking a remedy.
The maximum service rendered by the well-to-do class to the weaker class is to have removed their sufferings by mea ns of creating satisfaction in them, but happiness is not only freedom from suffering; it is not the negation of pain, but securing overall joys, benefits and pleasures. As it was said, such sufferings cannot be compared with physical pains like eye-ache and toothache, and in any case their removal may not be thought a service. Such sufferings are the means of social awakening and alertness, and their diminution in this respect is another sin and crime.