What is happiness? How can we achieve it? Can we be happy even when things aren’t going well?
These are some of the questions that ‘Positive Psychology’ tries to address. This branch of psychology has become hugely popular in the last couple of decades and spawned a vast number of educational programs, institutions and literature all devoted to finding out what makes life worth living.
Actually, this is not a new concept. People have been trying to figure out how to achieve happiness for millennia. Socrates taught that a moral life was the key to self-fulfillment. Buddha advocated a Middle Path. And Christ’s Sermon on the Mount was basically a roadmap to joy (the word blessed is substituted for happy).
It’s interesting that the American Declaration of Independence lists the pursuit of happiness as an unalienable right – not happiness itself. That’s what positive psychology research seems to be finding as well; emotional wellbeing may be partially inherited, but it’s not static. It can change depending on a number of factors such as the relationships we have, the pleasure we feel in doing work or a hobby we love, being close to nature, or being kind and caring about other people – but also not caring so much what other people think of us that we feel embarrassed or anxious much of the time. In other words, it’s a journey rather than something finite and forever.
I believe all of the above factors contribute to a good life, calmness, contentment and a feeling of belonging, but true joy? That’s different. Maybe real happiness is just those elusive moments in time when for any reason – or no reason – we come close to the power of the divine in the world and sense how the world was meant to be.
As Walt Whitman says in his poem Song of the Open Road:
The efflux of the soul is happiness, here is happiness
I think it pervades the open air, waiting at all times,
Now it flows unto us, we are rightly charged