Living a happy life
Tracing developments from Plato to Layard to Seligman to the Dalai Lama
“Happiness is the highest form of health.”
The Dalai Lama (1935-)
“Most folks are just as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)
Through two millennia of thought leaders, some have taken on the daunting task of analyzing happiness. Is it an emotion or a state of being? Does the most happiness go to the person who collects most things—belongings, or cars, or houses, or clothes—before they die? Prior to interrogating some great intellects on this topic, what do you think makes for a happy life, and how is it to be attained? Reflect on this a little.
In one sense, you can ignore the past big thinkers and their views on it: happiness is the narrative of the age. Happiness-speak is heard everywhere. Don’t worry, be happy. Pursue your dreams. Be as happy as Larry. Make an ode to joy. You can only have bliss if you don’t chase it. Get to the top of your field. Climb the ladder of success. Attain health, wealth and happiness at all costs.
But these are just mantras. For Eleanor Roosevelt, “Happiness is not a goal … it’s a by-product of a life well-lived.” So when might I ask, are you joyfully well-lived—or feeling deep-down heartfelt, or even, dare I put it this way, toe-tinglingly exultant?
Many of us might say never or rarely. But some of us might more concretely respond: when I have enough money. Or goods. Or power. But the immediate problems with this are: what happens when you get them? Is it all over? Have you reached the pinnacle then? And in any case, who knows when enough is enough?
For others, it will be good friends and effective relationships, and perhaps being part of a fulfilling family. Yet these are surely hard to achieve, and harder still to sustain.
And almost everyone these days yearns for profound emotional and physical well-being. To not be depressed, anxious, or just feeling down on bad days. Who, however, has these, or anywhere near as much happiness or well-being as they would like?
Many of us, inevitably, will settle for a few notches below pure happiness. Here, the satisfaction of accomplishment might beckon—whether through an OK career, or an interesting hobby, or indulging in the arts, or in helping the less fortunate.
Yet others might value the freedom to travel. Or the opportunity to build a business. Or the time to master a new skill.
And what about great sex? Or just good sex? But yet again, not all of us would say we have cracked the code of happiness, defined this way.
From the ancient, abstract musings of Socrates, Aristotle and Epicurus, to the modern notions of happiness expressed by economists and psychologists, there are many ideas of this kind to illuminate us—but it’s a mélange, and there’s no easy guideposts for how to travel the right road.
One point rings through the ages, though: the converse, unhappiness, is not an attractive option. Yet the reality is many of us are unhappy, or falling short of being contented, and not feeling accomplished. So it’s timely to drill deeper into this topic, to pursue this elusive thing of which we would all like to have more.
Go back 2,500 years, to Greece in the fifth century before the present. It was a time of intellectual vigor. A golden era, of buzzing, blooming exuberance. I secretly sometimes think I would have been very happy there. Plays from Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes. Visionary speeches from political giants like Pericles. The first, bold experiments in democracy. Sculpture, architecture, arts and literature of the first rank. History was invented and prosecuted by Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon. And amazingly sophisticated philosophy was conceived, discussed and documented, all in a very short few years, and mostly in Athens, a small town by later standards, in an agriculture society which was at war with its neighbors for much of its golden era.
For Plato and his teacher Socrates happiness equated with the good life, known to the Greeks as eudaimonia. This human flourishing was the ultimate goal of all. Hedonism and pleasure-seeking behavior might get you some of the way there, but for thinking philosophers and prominent Greeks with upright morals, eudaimonia was obtainable only through virtues such as self-control, courage, justice, piety, and wisdom. Say that today in the age of Trump, and many people might laugh at you. But perhaps there’s more to this than meets the eye.
Virtue was a generally agreed upon set of values or predispositions—courage, prudence, temperance and justice, among them—by the time Plato wrote The Republic, his most famous work. Being a student of the extremely ethical Socrates, Plato believed in virtue as the secret to eudaimonia, and in The Republic he expresses a nuanced view of this.
In Plato’s system the human soul consists of three parts. There’s the logical, rational bit of us, through which we seek truth and learning. There’s the spiritual part, which we can express in various ways, such as through our temper, or via courage. And there’s also the appetitive component, that part of us that seeks the hedonistic pleasures: food, drink, sex. For Plato, all are important, but happiness is obtained when the three parts of the soul are in balance.
However Plato contends that even when the soul is in balance, the virtue of justice is overarchingly needed to achieve the lofty heights of eudaimonia. Those even with balance of their soul, but without a just soul, will never reach this zenith. A just society was very important to the Greeks.
So being virtuous, and especially just, is for them the crucial determinant for a happy life. These of course are high-minded, idealistic thoughts, and perhaps seem old-fashioned to moderns. They don’t equate money or career or self-satisfaction or material things with happiness. In fact, they argue against these. But that’s Plato and the Greek philosophers for you. They, and their writings, were noble through and through.
Plato’s views fell in and out of human consciousness with the rise and fall of empires and changing tastes in scholarly interests over the ensuing two and a half millennia. They eventually gave over in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to technical philosophy, which these days sees philosophers parse problems into smaller and smaller pieces—and scientists, whose reductionist method also splices questions into tinier chunks. Such scholarship naturally wants to measure happiness in order to get on with the academic job of analyzing human behavior and emotion, and publishing empirical papers about it.
So the last 100 years has witnessed a transition to scientifically rigorous methods and to new ways of seeking to understand happiness. It has also opened perspectives from disciplines previously not much synonymous with concern over happiness. Political science. Neuroscience. Sociology. Anthropology.
Yet, and this is a big yet. Has it moved the basic tenets of the Ancient Greeks further forward?
I have doubts. But let’s see.
Richard Layard is a British economist, a surprising author of Happiness: Lessons From a New Science, co-author of Thrive: The Power of Evidence-Based Psychological Therapies and co-editor of the 2021 World Happiness Report. He has been given the lovely nickname, the “Happiness Tsar.” He seems to be taking on a lot of psychology for an economist. But we can quietly understand why.
Across his writings, Layard has revealed a paradox: while people when asked almost always express a desire for both more income and more happiness, and think they go together, the two variables in point of fact have a neutral or even negative rather than a positive correlation. In Happiness he writes: “Although the people in the West have for decades got richer, they have not become happier … they are not happier today than 50 years ago. And this is despite the fact that the real median income in this period has more than doubled.”
This suggests that while financial factors may be thought by many, even most of us, to contribute to happiness, they are not the major determinant. This may have amazed economists, but at least some of us probably aren’t puzzled: money only gets you so far with happiness, and, according to the old quip, you can’t buy it. Other important variables are the personal, social, or environmental factors.
Enter Martin Seligman, one of my favorite psychologists, and a proponent of what has become known as positive psychology. He reminds us that psychology traditionally measured how very unhappy people can become happier. It was focused on so-called “abnormal” people – those with schizophrenia, psychosis, and various cognitive or mental disorders. The discipline tried, via behavioral treatment, drugs, and more severe methods (electro convulsive therapy, for example) to make mentally unwell patients better. But positive psychologists saw how we need to understand ordinary happy people, and how they stay happy or get happier. For Seligman this positive psychology strives to study our strengths and virtues (that word again) to understand what makes us all happy, and be happier.
Along with his colleague Christopher Peterson, Seligman created a Character Strengths and Virtues (CSV) Handbook, described as positive psychology’s equivalent to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) used by psychiatrists to diagnose mental conditions and illness. To create a test, they looked, as we are doing, as far back as Plato, across cultures over time, and in both Eastern and Western traditions in order to identify and then express the most valued virtues. Their list did not differ greatly from one a smart, thoughtful Ancient Athenian might give: wisdom, knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence.
In a 2004 Ted Talk, ‘The new era of positive psychology’, Seligman put much of his observations together in three life paths. The pleasant life is one where someone goes after positive emotions and pleasures. This involves raw subjective feelings—focusing on optimizing pleasure and minimizing pain in the present, being “in the moment”—and increasing the times and occasions spent in such a frame. This might be nice to have, but it can manifest as mindless shopping for pretty things you may never use, and feeling compelled to enjoy the experience. It’s the psychologist’s version of Plato’s hedonism: pleasure-inducing, and giving a warm feeling, but a telling question for those pursuing the pleasant life is: what’s the point?
A life of engagement is the second path. Borrowing from the Greeks, Seligman calls this path “eudaimonian flow”. “Flow” refers to the way you sometimes feel performing a task that you are skilled in and you enjoy, where your mindful, intense concentration causes you to get lost in your work. There’s no direct match to Plato’s pursuit of truth and learning but this seems to fit at least in part.
The third path is toward a meaningful life—a life where you use your greatest strengths in order to pursue and serve a “higher power” or something you understand as being deeply meaningful. Life is fulfilling, and it’s not about the destination (well, we know how your life inevitably ends, anyway) but the journey. Plato’s spirituality resonates here.
Seligman asked to what extent these lives – the pleasant life, the engaged life, and the meaningful life—contribute to happiness. And his answer? That largely, happiness is about creating meaningfulness, and it is as well about engagement with your work, crafts or hobbies. It’s almost nothing to do with the pursuit of pleasure, which has virtually no relationship to life satisfaction. But if you have meaning, and engagement, as well as a dose of occasional pleasure, that’s the cake, with cream, and a cherry on top. That is, a rich life, full of opportunities for happiness, and personal mental wellbeing from good relationships. And that last comment is very important. If we can map our relationships in support of the pleasant existence, the engaged existence and the meaningful existence, then we really do have a shot at more happiness.
Amazingly, then, we may have come full circle. These three ways of living are not quite the same, but not completely dissimilar to the three parts of the soul described by Plato. It only took two and half millennia to re-discover this.
Beyond the theories of Plato, the ideas of Layard and the reach of Seligman, perhaps we can learn, finally, from the person who I think exudes a version of the happy life to which we all might aspire – the Dalai Lama.
Tibet, an autonomous region of China in Central Asia is a large area of mountains, valleys and plateaus which includes Mount Everest and is known colloquially as “the roof of the world”. Throughout history it was isolated. It is relatively poor and underdeveloped despite many untapped mineral resources. It has spectacular scenery and a cool, dry climate. It is famed for Tibetan Buddhism. Tenzin Gyatsu is the fourteenth Dalai Lama—the representative of Buddhist ways of thinking and living. The name Dalai Lama means, roughly, master guru, as big as the ocean.
Source: https://www.dalailama.com/the-dalai-lama/biography-and-daily-life/brief-biography Photo/Tenzin Choejor/OHHDL
One of the most recognized people on the planet, the Dalai Lama is enormously popular according to public opinion surveys. He believes, and prosecutes widely, the point that happiness is the purpose of human existence. He is a protector of all sentient beings. That is any plant or animal that can experience pleasure or pain or any other form of feeling. He defines happiness in terms of a personalized sense of deep satisfaction and he equates happiness with a calm mind. Not chemically induced, but one that comes from having a realistic attitude about life and compassion. Joined together, according to the Dalai Lama, the exercise of compassion and having affection for other humans are key underpinnings.
It might be presumptuous of me to take issue with the Dalai Lama on human happiness, but I think I would add that relationships—deep human investment with others, in a genuine collaboration—is also key to attaining levels of happiness, whatever that might be in the lived experience for the individual.
In the end, we can add together what we have learnt during this discovery. That may be a pointer for some people seeking to attain their life goals. The three parts of the soul first enunciated by the Ancient Greeks, added to by Layard’s empirical studies, and synthesized so ably in Seligman’s positive psychological studies, and recognizing the pivotal points of compassion and human affection as argued by the Dalai Lama, overlayed with the best relationships that can be built. These seem to be at the heart of a happy existence—maybe, even, the prescription for it.
Helliwell, John F., Layard, Richard, Sachs, Jeffrey, De Neve, Jan-Emmanuel, eds. (2021). World Happiness Report 2021. New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
Layard, Richard (2011). Happiness: Lessons From a New Science. London: Penguin.
Layard, Richard, Clark, David (2014). Thrive: The Power of Evidence-Based Psychological Therapies. London: Penguin.
Plato (380 BC). Book IV of The Republic. The Modern Library: New York.
Seligman, Martin (2002). Authentic Happiness: using new positive psychology to realise your potential for lasting fulfillment. North Sydney, NSW: Random House Australia.
Seligman, Martin, Peterson, Christopher (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. New York: Oxford University Press.
The Dalai Lama (2018). The Art of Happiness: A handbook for living. (Twentieth anniversary edition) Sydney, Australia: Hachette.