Below you will find the third essay in my new book, Wisdom: Life’s Great Treasure. It explains the relationship between wisdom and our pursuit of happiness.
What do you want most out of life?
What do you want most out of life? If you were to conduct street interviews in any city and ask this question, the answer you would overwhelmingly hear is “happiness .” It seems to be the universal response in all countries, at all times.
Going back to the early Greek philosophers, a group of men in search of wisdom journeyed to discover how individuals could live a good and happy life. Aristotle called happiness “the highest good,” reflecting that an enlightened society would be ordered with the goal of helping its citizens become happy. The problem is, the Greeks could never land on a unified answer of how to find it.
Also on a quest for the root of happiness, Blaise Pascal addressed these words in his 1660 classic book, “Pensées”: “All men seek happiness. There are no exceptions. However different the means they may employ, they all strive toward this goal!”
Ironically, Pascal saw nothing but unhappiness all around him. He writes, “as unhappy as we are … we have an idea of happiness, but we cannot obtain it.” He concludes that instead of being happy, we struggle with “inconstancy, boredom and anxiety.”
Fast forward to 1930 when Sigmund Freud published his book, “Civilization and Its Discontent.” Freud originally planned to title it “Unhappiness in Civilization,” but was convinced otherwise. The book’s central theme is the frustration one experiences in the perennial search for happiness. Freud recognized this as the driving force of all people. He perceived our desire for happiness to be insatiable. However, what most people don’t know, is that happiness eluded Freud his entire life. In fact, he referred to life as being joyless and full of misery.
Happiness and the Social Sciences
Over the last 20 years, social scientists have performed research at the University of Chicago, Princeton, Harvard and Yale to better understand personal happiness and its relationship with rising prosperity. The results were baffling. Researchers learned that as prosperity rises in the western world, our sense of well-being does not move toward happiness; rather, it retreats.
Princeton professor Dr. Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002, spent two decades observing the “subjective well-being”–a common phrase social scientists use to describe happiness–in people’s lives, and eventually abandoned his work. During this 20-year period, Dr. Kahneman was unable to summarize conclusive insights regarding a person’s happiness.
Gregg Easterbrook is a popular journalist and a contributing editor at The New Republic and The Atlantic Monthly. His 2003 book, “The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse,” asserts that almost all aspects of western civilization have vastly improved in the last 100 years, while men and women of today are not as happy as in previous generations. Easterbrook cites this riveting observation:
How many of us feel positive about our moment, or even believe that life is getting better? Today, Americans tell pollsters that the country is going downhill; that their parents had it better; that they feel unbearably stressed out; that their children face a declining future– and Americans were telling pollsters this even during the unprecedented boom that preceded the tragedy of September 11, 2001.
Far from feeling better about their lives, many are feeling worse. Throughout the United States and the European Union, incidence of clinical melancholy has been rising in eerie synchronization with rising prosperity: Adjusting for population growth, “unipolar” depression, the condition in which a person simply always feels blue, is ten times as prevalent today as it was half a century ago.
There is increasing evidence by other sources to support Easterbrook’s claim.
In their 2003 book, “Healing Anxiety and Depression,” Drs. Daniel Amen and Lisa Routh claim, “Anxiety and depression are major public health problems reaching epidemic levels in the United States.”
Dr. Martin Seligman, a psychologist who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the bestselling book, “Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing,” spent his entire career studying human happiness. Dr. Seligman highlights in his research that the baby boomer generation has experienced a significant increase in depression compared to earlier generations. This rise can only lead to one conclusion–an epidemic in modern culture, which explains the explosion of our suicide rate.
Joining the quest for the source of happiness, philosopher Deal Hudson presented his argument on psychological happiness:
[Psychological happiness] has become an unquestioned first principle of the present age. As a result, the cultivation of satisfaction, pleasure and emotion now takes precedence over the nurturing of moral and institutional character.
We have gone from a time when self-restraint was a cardinal virtue, to one where self-gratification is the driving force in people’s lives.
Finding the Right Path
Although these findings appear grim, the purpose of this book is to help people understand why they are coming up short in their pursuit of happiness, offering insight for change. It is indeed a great paradox. We live in such prosperity, a country where we are free to pursue our dreams. Yet, disappointment and despair surrounds us as we continue down the wrong path. Perhaps it is time to be open to the possibility that our ideas about happiness may, in fact, be wrong.
Dr. Seligman provides a thoughtful view on what has occurred. He suggests we no longer exist as our ancestors, who lived for a cause much bigger than themselves: God, family and country. In the past, people tied happiness to the right ordering of the soul. It was considered a reward for living wisely.
C.S. Lewis makes a shrewd observation about living wisely in his book, The Abolition of Man. He states that ancient wisdom recognized that man’s chief problem was how to conform his or her soul to reality. The answer to this is by acquiring wisdom. In other words, wisdom is the answer to the cardinal problem of life. Lewis says here is life, and I need to see and understand how it works, and then seek to live in harmony with it. This is wisdom and this is what leads to our ultimate well-being.
If you like what you have read, why not order WISDOM Lifes Greatest Treasure?