“Happiness” Is an Art

“Most people are about as happy as they choose to be,” said Abraham Lincoln. The word “happy” comes from the old Norse root “hap,” which just means “luck” or “chance.” To be happy, in the crudest sense, is simply to be having a string of good luck: things are going well. But in our time it seems to have a deeper, more metaphysical sense, indicating a generalized sense of wellbeing or contentment. Psychologists came to equate this with being “well-adjusted.” Most religions hold out the promise of happiness as an end state to be achieved by the virtuous, a reward.

How one quantifies this depends on the time frame in question: momentary versus ultimate happiness. While it is impossible to imagine happiness existing without some associated feelings of happiness, mere feelings are not enough for most people. Artificial sensations of joy, contentment, and release can be created by drugs, for example, but when the effects wear off a gnawing feeling of emptiness and remorse can ensue. While Mortimer J. Adler, in his book Ten Philosophical Mistakes, makes a reasonable argument for the notion that true happiness is arriving at one’s deathbed with a sense of satisfaction at a life well-lived, it is hard to imagine such a scenario without there having been many happy moments leading up to it.

For what I feel is the best treatment of this subject, I recommend the book The Art of Happinessby His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, M.D. This useful book shows how achieving happiness is a skill to be developed over a lifetime, with implications far beyond the individual.