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A short history of happiness

Some 2000 years ago, Aristotle was asking himself what happiness was all about.

He concluded that most of the things we think we want are really about making us happier. Our desires for things like power, prestige, wealth, fame, good looks and material possessions arise because we think that by acquiring these things we will be happier. Aristotle therefore concluded that happiness must be the ultimate goal of our lives, superseding all other desires. He said that the aim of life should be eudemonia a concept similar to Seligman's view in his Authentic Happiness that it is in the pursuit of 'the meaningful life' that we will find true happiness (see 'The heirarchy of happiness' section).


Socrates also contemplated the nature of happiness and concluded that happiness was congruent with 'goodness', that a happy life was one where the individual was in touch with their better, and higher, feelings.

Horace, the Latin poet who died a few years before the birth of Christ, saw happiness in more simple terms: 'Happy the man with no slavish yoke around his neck,' he said. No doubt he saw slaves around him on an everyday basis and was thinking in proto-democratic terms.

But the general trend was towards the idea that happiness could only be won if the individual followed some sort of ethical code in life (although, quite often, the reward would come only after death). The Beatitudes (blessings) as laid down in the gospel according to St Matthew makes clear the kind of conduct that will be rewarded:

  • Blesed are the poor in spirit: for their's is the kingdom of heaven
  • Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land 
  • Blessed are they who mourn: for they shall be comforted 
  • Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill
  • Blessed are the merciful: for they shal obtain mercy
  • Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God
  • Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the dhidren of God of heaven 

Failure to comply carries an implied threat. What will happen to the unmerciful? If my heart is less than clean, can I never see God? The idea that happiness could only be won in this world, or the next, through 'good works' and a clean heart dominated social and religious thinking for most of the next 2000 years.

Preachers like Martin Luther (1483-1546) still saw individual conduct as being closely tied to happiness. Indeed, it was his condemnation of conduct at the highest levels of the Catholic church - the pope's abuse of power and the sale of indulgences - that drove him to lead the Reformation. But Luther was no dour opponent of happiness in life. Ponder these quotes from his writings and teachings:

'There is no more lovely, friendly, and charming relationship, communion, or company than a good marriage.' 

'If you're not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don't want to go there.'

The 18th century Scottish thinkers who ushered in the Enlightenment shifted the focus from how we should act to save our souls in the next life, to how we should find happiness in this life. Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746), who was professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow University, argued that our ethical acts are guided by an innate benevolence and a 'moral sense'. When we do 'virtuous' things we experience pleasurable feelings because they are in line with our natural benevolence or moral sense.  

As a result, Hutcheson took the utilitarian point of view that 'the happiness of the greatest number' should be the guiding principle.  When we judge the worth or morality of an action,  'the virtue is in proportion to the number of persons to whom the happiness shall extend; ... so that, that action is best, which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers; and that, worst, which, in like manner, occasions misery.'

The Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) believed that although we are driven by motives of self-interest, we also have feelings of 'benevolence' or a 'feeling for humanity'. He rejected the idea that our sole motive in life is self-interest and pointed out that we all know from our own experience that virtue is accompanied by feelings of pleasure, while wrong-doing gives us painful feelings. Our feelings should be our guide as to moral behaviour.

Based on Enlightenment thinking, Utilitarianism caught on in England where people like Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) argued that: 'The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.' The Utilitarians believed that that we should judge actions by their consequences - overall, did the action have a good impact or a bad impact on all those affected by it?

By the time of American Independence, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) believed happiness to be so important that he enshrined it in law. He headed a committee of five who drew up the first draft of the Declaration of Independence which included the words: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.'

And if the government became 'destructive' of those ends, then the people had the right to alter or abolish the government.

William Beveridge (1879-1963), who set up the UK's welfare state after World War II, also saw the creation of happiness as a political duty: 'The objective of government in peace and in war is not the glory of rulers or races, but the happiness of the common man.'

The 19th century the writer and political activist George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) saw happiness as something that could be shared round - and which we should try to create in other people's lives: 'We have no more right to consume happiness without producing it than to consume wealth without producing it.'

The Scottish novelist and poet Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) also saw happiness as something to which we owed an obligation - and to each other: 'There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy. By being happy, we sow anonymous benefits upon the world.'

Duty or not, if you had told Stevenson, Beveridge, Shaw or the others that by the early 21st century we would be living in a country where we enjoy high levels of employment, widespread home ownership, free medical care, free education, low-cost flights to the sun, central heating and a colour TV and a personal computer in almost every home, they would have assumed that we would be much happier than our grandparents and great-grandparents. 

How wrong they'd have been. Despite the tremendous advantages and conveniences developed over the last 100 years, we are no happier. Some would argue that factors like the breakdown of community, dispersal of families, consumerism, stress at work and a swelling tide of mental health problems have left us much less happier than our grandparent's generation, even although they lived through major wars.

We yearn for happiness. Yet, despite the abundant availability of self-help books, personal development manuals and goal-setting gurus, most of us don't feel any happier. If we want to see the improvement of society and individuals, it's time we took happiness seriously.

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