What Causes Happiness?
The philosophy of happiness is a subject we should all be made to study in school. Why? Because Americans’ happiness levels have declined. According to the National Opinion Research Center, 35% of Americans were “very happy” in 1957. By 1991, their happiness research suggests this figure had dropped to 31%. Over the same period, the number of Americans with depression has skyrocketed. Now an estimated 35 million adults will experience depression during their lives.
It’s ironic to think that The Declaration of Independence highlights each individuals right to pursue happiness, yet fewer and fewer of us are able to find it. Doesn’t this suggest that we’ve forgotten the meaning of happiness?
The Philosophy Of Happiness – A Western View
If you read widely about the power of positive thinking and self help solutions, you have probably heard of Positive Psychology. Founded in 1998 by then President of the American Psychological Association, Martin Seligman, along with the author of Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Positive Psychology is a new branch in the field of psychology that’s devoted to happiness research. Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi founded positive psychology because the field has traditionally been devoted to the study of mental illness. This is a big reason why there is no real philosophy of happiness in the United States.
Martin Seligman’s “Authentic Happiness”
In his book, “Authentic Happiness”, Martin Seligman introduces us to positive psychology and what causes happiness. He tells us that the good life is attainable to those who pursue core virtues by focusing on their corresponding signature strengths.
The Pursuit Of Virtue
Seligman observes that across all historical philosophical leaders and traditions – from Confucius to Aristotle, to the Bhagavad-Gita, there is a consensus on the core human values and strengths. These culminate into six main virtues: wisdom and knowledge, courage, love and humanity, justice, temperance, and spirituality and transcendence. Using these virtues as a starting point, Seligman then categorizes 24 character strengths. When we become familiar with our key strengths, our “signature strengths,” and use them regularly, our happiness and well-being increase. In his words:
\”The good life consists in deriving happiness by using your signature strengths every day in the main realms of living. The meaningful life adds one more component: using these same strengths to forward knowledge, power, or goodness.”
You can take Seligman’s character strength test online to find out your signature strengths. Just sign up for a free account here.
The Philosophy Of Happiness – An Eastern View
In The Art of Happiness, psychologist Dr. Howard Cutler, gives a western lens to the Dalai Lama’s perspective on what causes happiness.
The Dalai Lama teaches that happiness is the goal of life as it’s what everyone is striving for. He believes that happiness is a mental attitude, a state of mind and isn’t primarily dependent on external conditions. We can achieve happiness by freeing ourselves from negativity. And since positive states are the best antidote to negativity, our goal is to foster the habit of living and acting from positive states like joy, love and enthusiasm rather than negative states like hatred, anger and apathy. This takes inner discipline to achieve. It requires diligently confronting our negative states and transforming them into positive ones.
Cultivating Happiness – Some Steps Suggested By The Dalai Lama
In his philosophy of happiness, the Dalai Lama provides many powerful ways to cultivate positive states. Here are my favorite three:
- He encourages us to cultivate genuine compassion for others. We achieve genuine compassion when we realize that every human being is ultimately the same as every other human being. Compassion is an attitude based on the wish that others will be able to free themselves from their suffering. For a fantastic yet cool and entertaining perspective on compassion, check out this video below.
- He encourages us to explore our own suffering. Suffering is the opposite of happiness. By identifying the causes of our suffering (not just the symptoms), we can eliminate them from our lives. We also need to change the way we view suffering. We should see it as feedback to the way we are currently being. To transform our suffering, we need to change according to the feedback.
- He encourages us to develop and focus on deep relationships. The quality of our relationships is connected to our level of happiness. Deep relationships are based on openness, truth and respect. They are based on meaningful communication not just on role playing.
The Philosophy Of Happiness – The Meaning Of Happiness
No matter what the tradition is that you turn to for self help solutions and guidance on living the good life, there seems to be a consensus that happiness is a state that can be nurtured, and it requires mastering one’s mind. With a greater emphasis on positive psychology and happiness research in the United States, let’s hope that there will be much more guidance in the future on who we need to be, and what we need to do to be as happier as our ancestors.