Optimism and happiness blend into one another just like the sky meets the sea at the horizon. Each needs the other.
Perhaps optimists are happy more often than others. However, you can’t think often enough about happiness as a state of mind. After all, wherein lies the sense of all existence if not in happiness? Whether you take a short- or long-term view, focus more on the individual perspective or on people in general, what is the thin red line that runs through all action, thought and valuation if not “the greatest happiness of all”?
This must surely be the focal point of all aspirations, the yardstick that tells us if we are doing the right thing in the little time we are given. Will this war really make mankind happier in the long run? Will this genetic tool with all its risks and opportunities increase the potential for happiness for us all, or will it rather endanger it?
How else, if not with these kinds of questions, can we address the difficult ethical challenges of life? What else can be the goal of our decisions and actions?
It is therefore amazing how little thought is wasted on this issue, how blindly we pursue it.
Allow me to list a few basic thoughts:
- Happiness transcends the question of the meaning of life. If you’re happy, you don’t wonder why.
- Happiness overcomes every objective concept of time. “The happy man knows not the hour,” Schiller said, while Goethe’s Faust is so struck by the beauty of the moment that he wants just one thing: for it to linger on. Happiness may only last a few seconds, but the impression can be that it lasted a lifetime. Or it can last for months and yet these appear like a moment in Heaven. And the anticipation long before the actual moment is often far nicer than the happy event itself.
- Happiness is closely related to freedom and self-determination.
- Happiness magically avoids all systemization, all too direct intentionality. It comes and goes, and can only be controlled to a limited extent. It can’t be increased by guides, self-fulfilment seminars or entreaties to “Be happy!” It is sometimes there when we least expect it, and yet glaringly absent when it is most needed – at many a Christmas celebration, after passing an exam, or even on our honeymoon.
We all know the feeling that the world is a wonderful place and yet we don’t really know why. Time and again we realise only in retrospect how happy a certain situation made us.
Happiness lies within. It is a terribly bad habit to constantly blame its absence on bad weather, on too little money, a bad boss or a grumpy wife.
We can attempt to control happiness and unhappiness. Only we won’t succeed.
And happiness lives off unhappiness. It needs the contrast. You can’t always be happy, just like you can’t always eat chocolate or always kiss during a sunset.
So what can we say about what happiness comprises? What does man need to be happy?
Tal Ben-Shahar, a psychologist who studies happiness at Harvard University, defines happiness as “the overall experience of pleasure and meaning”. Pleasure, he says, is created by positive feeling in the here and now. That the feeling of meaning comes when we set ourselves specific goals in our lives and know that our actions will bring some benefit in the future. That we need both to be happy. That neither pure live-for-the-moment hedonism nor the obsessive search for the career that will guarantee us a better future can in itself provide the answer to the question of life’s purpose.
Author Theodor Fontane summed it up thus: “A good book, a few friends, a place to sleep and no toothache.” That may be a charming image and one that will generally get heads nodding, but it’s not quite enough. Any experience in life that crosses individual, historical or national boundaries shows that all attempts to list the sum parts of happiness must be doomed to failure.
Happiness is as unique as our eyes and our smile. One man’s happiness is another man’s boredom. Some people like listening to operatic arias, some like washing their car every week. Some don’t feel right unless they have a book in their hand, others need to be racing over the waves on a surfboard. Even fanatical, religiously-motivated suicide bombers are probably happy in some perverse way in the instant in which they detonate their load.
Optimism means trusting that one will be happy, consciously seeking it out and shaping it and having the individual strength of character to fill the blank canvas we are offered in a personally satisfying way.
This is the last of our daily excerpts from Florian Langenscheidt’s inspiring Dictionary of Optimism. He is a renowned author, journalist, publisher and television presenter and has been researching and writing about happiness for over 40 years.