The American Declaration of Independence has made even non-Americans familiar with the phrase in the title : not only U.S. citizens but “all men” have “certain unalienable rights” including “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Apparently this third right means not just the right to seek happiness but to experience, to possess, happiness. In the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, article 3, the concept was broadened to include “religion, morality and knowledge” as “essential to the happiness of mankind”. Scholars expert in the dissection of such documents define it as “virtuous felicity”, and, for good measure, “eudaimonia”.
Obviously there are degrees in the meaning we give to “happiness”. For millions today, having a roof over their head, clothes on their back, food on the table and a bed to sleep in would be nirvana. Others would be happy if only the bombs would stop falling on their homes. This is happiness at the level of survival. Beyond the satisfaction of basic needs and survival from one day to the next, there is a variety of views on what is necessary to make people happy.
Long before the writing of the American documents, Epicurus, the 4th century B.C. founder of one of Athens’ four great schools of Philosophy, taught that there are four conditions for happiness : the autonomy that comes from being delivered from fear of the gods, the rejection of the fear of death, the mastery of desires and the capacity to endure suffering. Very recently an eminent French philosopher, a former Minister of Youth, National Education and Research, Luc Ferry, devoted a book to seven ways of being happy (“7 Façons d’Etre Heureux”, XO Editions, 2016) : Physical and Mental Harmony, Love, Admiration (for others), Self-Emancipation, Expansion of Horizons, Learning and Creating, Doing Good to Others. Take your pick.
My own list would include :
— Security, having the means to provide for one’s personal well-being and that of loved ones, as well as the necessary protection of those means and of other personal property
— Health, both physical and mental, and the means to protect it as well as, when necessary, to restore it
— Relations of reciprocal friendship and love, including sexual satisfaction with a faithful partner
— The development of one’s potential through education
— Employment that is interesting, satisfying, challenging, meaningful and adequately recompensed
— Leisure and the availability of the entertainment of one’s choice
— The satisfaction that comes from contributing to making the world a better, safer, more friendly place, and assuring that at least some of its inhabitants are better fed, better housed, better educated and better protected
— A social and political environment that ensures the protection of human rights and the values of liberty, equality and solidarity (if not fraternity)
— The freedom to hold and to express with impunity personal opinions and beliefs
— Living in an unpolluted environment with a moderate range of temperatures, preferably close to a city’s cultural riches, and, if possible, with a view of the sea and/or mountains and/or forests.
Poverty, unwanted solitude, ill-health, physical and mental ailments and handicaps, boredom, insecurity, oppression and fear are the enemies of happiness.
Happiness is the birth-right and ambition of all of us. How many of us are truly happy ? Is this, for us, a “wonderful world” or a “vale of tears” ? For too many, it is the latter; for too many, happiness remains out of reach. The wise never abandon hope in the quest for happiness and find the courage to survive in adversity. Some of us are lucky enough to experience happiness for at least brief periods of time. Realists know that permanent, and a fortiori eternal, happiness is an illusion. Only the credulous imagine that however unhappy their lives may have been, eternal happiness awaits them in Heaven.
However you define earthly happiness – the only one one available – I am resigned to its limits, and plan to make the most of many happy days ahead.
P. S. There is an important footnote to all this. You see, now that I have drawn up my list, I realize that I already have everything that I consider to be what I need and want to make me happy. I’m not filthy rich, in perfect health or immune to life’s slings and arrows. But I am perfectly happy with what I have and the life I am able to lead. There were times when I had less, a lot less. And I was, I think, just as happy then as now. That intriguing fact deserves reflection. What is worrying is that I realize that if ever I lost what I now have – including the luxury items in my list, including a home in France On Zeee Beeech ! – I could be much less happy. With less, I was once content enough. Having more, I have made the non-essential essential. It is a rerun of Jesus’ parable about the rich young man looking for happiness and refusing to renounce his wealth. St Francis of Assisi did just what Jesus suggested, became the Poverello and found in “Lady Poverty” what he called “Perfect Joy” ! I think he was nuts, as I was to follow him as a Franciscan. But at least he taught us that maybe we are shooting ourselves in the foot in getting so attached to what we once did without. Could detachment be the ultimate, fundamental ingredient of happiness ? Buddhists would seem to think so. Come to think of it, that maybe is what Epicurus meant by the “mastery of desires”. But I do love watching the surf crash on to the beach below my ocean-side deck ! I’ll enjoy it and the rest of what I am privileged to possess for as long as I can. When I no longer can, I’ve decided that I will be happy to recall the joys I had for so long; it’s already been fifteen years ! In a word, I will settle for less and enjoy what I have left, physically, mentally, materially and relationally, for the time I have left. Having enough is … enough.