Not everyone is born with a sunny disposition, but commentators tend to suggest we can all learn how to bring more meaning and satisfaction into our lives. From an academic perspective you have some control over your own emotions because personal choice, genetics and life circumstances all interact. It seems to be generally agreed that as long as one’s basic financial needs are met, any increase in wealth is not an important factor in making you happy.
“Money can’t buy happiness, but it can make you awfully comfortable while you’re being miserable.” (Clare Boothe Luce)
So what does make us happy?
Praise and happiness
Who doesn’t like being well thought of by others. Take this to the extreme and you find vain people basking in the praise of others. For example there is the celebrity who craves the public gaze for the pleasure of being admired. There are those who are happiest when their ego is massaged in ways you might find objectionable like the inner-city gang leader who is pleased when followers show “respect” by kow-tow-ing and giving subservience.
“If your happiness depends on what somebody else does, I guess you do have a problem.” (Richard Bach)
Other people in the limelight recognise they need the esteem of others if they are to be successful: like film actors who are cast in productions because of their reputation and popularity. For some of them, the praise they get may simply be a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.
Power and happiness
There are people who enjoy getting their own way and, in whatever walk of life they happen to find themselves, strive for a position of power over others. History is full of tyrants who have taken delight in being cruel, expressing contempt or getting revenge towards those who oppose them.
Yet, are there not also some politicians and leaders of industry who enjoy the power they wield mainly for the sake of getting useful things done?
“The day the power of love overrules the love of power, the world will know peace.” (Mahatma Gandhi)
Bodily pleasure and happiness
Who does not enjoy good food and drink, sexual pleasure, rest and comfort? However an addiction to these pleasures can mean they no longer provide relaxation and refreshment for living one’s life to the full in valued roles. The enjoyment of the addict only lasts until the next fix.
The spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg comments that a deeper happiness that lasts does not come from external pleasures of the world which of themselves are lifeless and soon dull the senses. Instead it comes from doing something useful for oneself and for others. Unless this is part of one’s life, pleasurable leisure alone becomes empty and wearisome.
“True happiness… is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” (Helen Keller)
Swedenborg goes on to point out that what makes us happy depends on what we most love – what we most want in life. In line with his writing, I would suggest there are four main types of motivation which can be thought of in terms of:
1. attachment to the physical side of life,
2. self-centred love,
3. concern for others
4. love of the Divine spirit of what is good and true.
Attachment to the physical side of life
By this Swedenborg means being worldly: setting one’s heart on wealth, excessive consumption, and neglecting loving commitment in favour of the pleasures of sexual infidelity, and sacrificing moderation in favour of greed. In Buddhism, ultimate happiness is only achieved by overcoming craving in all forms.
We might think we can be happy by thinking first about oneself: asking “What’s in it for me”. This might mean not caring about anyone unless they are your ally: not really being concerned about the business at hand except in terms of what one wants for oneself: helping others solely for the sake of one’s own reputation: and through self-pride failing to recognise the useful contributions of others.
Concern for others
A Harvard Business School study found that “spending money on others actually makes us happier than spending it on ourselves”. However, Swedenborg’s idea of concern for others is more general than giving to charity and also includes an interest in doing what is good and useful to the community for its own sake.
Love of the Spirit of good and truth
I would suggest that insofar as we are doing things for the sake of what is good and right for our community then we are being led by the Divine spirit. From the perspective of a religious person, the source of all that is human happiness is a God of love. And so such a person is interested in being led by God’s spirit rather than in being led by his own or her own inclinations. We might wonder if this is the reason why research shows that happier people are more likely to be religious.
I do believe that we cannot of ourselves create the kind of deep happiness that will endure all the hardships and difficulties of ordinary living. Happiness has to flow into us from its Divine source. But to receive it we have to face the right direction.
Happiness for the self-centered and worldly-minded person is a pale reflection of happiness experienced by the person who is concerned for others and is willing to be led by the divine spirit of good and truth.
My recommendation is that we face away from what we each know in our hearts is bad. In so doing we will be facing the right direction to receive the inspiration of creativity, hope, and discernment and thus the spiritual gifts of peace, contentment and joy.
Copyright 2014 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems