The Secrets of Happiness

Introduction — I wrote this essay a while ago, and I am adding this preface here to explain more about WHY I wrote it:


A central problem of our age is the turning of “means” into “ends”.  It is obvious that money, by itself, is not a source of pleasure –  it is a means to this end. Similarly, freedom is useful only if it is freedom to allow us to do something we want to do. Nobody would want the freedom to sell himself into slavery — which is effectively the only free choice offered to the poor in capitalism. Yet, today, due to a long, strange, and complex, historical process, freedom and wealth have become the goals of life, and the religion of most people on the planet. By religion, I mean that morality is based on these two goals — anything which creates wealth is desirable and hence moral, while anything which allows us greater freedom to act on our desires is also moral (this is the foundational principle of utilitarianism). In order to clear our minds of traps created by false paradigms, it is very useful to contemplate the opposites, as a mental exercise. As the dialectical method suggests, let us focus on the possibility that wealth and freedom are harmful to us. Wealth tempts us into the misconception that we can buy happiness with it, and this cheap path to short-term happiness — “The Coca Cola Theory of Happiness” — prevents us from learning and understanding the sources of long-term happiness, destroying the possibility of genuine happiness. Similarly, freedom tempts us into following paths of behavior which lead to short term pleasures at the cost of our long term happiness — we pursue strategies of instant gratification, failing to understand the need for sacrifice, struggle, and voluntary acceptance of suffering, in order to achieve higher goals. Not having wealth would be useful to enable us to learn to search for happiness in more productive directions. Instead of freedom, discipleship and slavery to an established tradition which teaches devotees to act in ways that lead to self developments and enlightenment, may create long run capabilities which are beyond the reach of our current imagination and vision.

Modern economic theory is based on the absurd and ridiculous Coca-Cola theory of Happiness, and assumes that the purpose of all human beings is to maximize the pleasure they obtain from a lifetime of consumption — It is flabbergasting that economists are proud of this childish microeconomic theory as a great accomplishment! If we had a more mature understanding of sources of human happiness, we would be in a better position to develop an economic system which could succeed in providing welfare for all.

The Secrets of Happiness: (published in The Express Tribune, June 27th, 2016.)


Psychologists have studied abnormal behavior for a long time, but have only recently started to pay attention to happiness. In this article, we map the findings of this happiness research to traditional concepts, which have been abandoned by modern mindsets. Despite our strong convictions to the contrary, happiness does not depend on our external circumstances. The greatest myth about happiness is to search for it in the outside world. People think that the perfect mate, the perfect job, achieving this that or the other goal will bring happiness. When they achieve their desired external goals, they are inevitably disappointed. However, instead of re-thinking their strategy, they shift the goal-post, continuing to seek more and more in a desperate quest for the elusive happiness. But happiness does not lie outside us, and it does not lie in distant goals. It lies within our grasp, in the present moment. At the present moment, we need to be able to analyze and change our internal mindset. “Know Thyself,” or self-awareness, is one of the crucial keys to happiness.

Reflection can make us aware of our conscious thought stream, but it is more difficult to become aware of our subconscious thought stream. Among the many effective techniques for tapping into the subconscious, free writing involves taking ten to fifteen minutes to write down whatever thoughts come to mind, without paying attention to grammar, spelling, style or any formalities. This method works to bring out into the open our thoughts which create obstacles to happiness. Extremely damaging to happiness is rumination on hurts, losses, tragedies, missed opportunities and the like. With conscious effort, we can put away negative thoughts. The concept of “predestination” is a powerful tool to avoid rumination over what might have been. The Quran states that all misfortunes have been recorded in advance, “in order that ye may not despair over matters that pass you by, …” Resignation to an inevitable fate brings peace of mind, while despair and distress is caused by ruminating over what might have been, or what might be.

In addition to suppressing negative thoughts, we must cultivate and nurture positive thoughts. One important source of positive thoughts is to cultivate gratitude for the gifts we have been given by God, instead of regretting what we do not have. This, and many deep lessons about life, were traditional elements of an Islamic childhood training. Sheikh Saadi writes about a boy going to Eid Festival Prayers with old shoes, and regretting not having new ones like the other children. Then he sees a boy with amputated feet, and feels gratitude that he has the feet on which to put shoes. The gifts of God which surround us are so extensive that reflecting on what we have, and reflecting on the millions who do not enjoy our privileges, is sure to lead to gratitude. Furthermore, as a wonderful bonus, God has promised to increase our gifts if we are grateful for what we already possess.

Positivity is also generated by optimism, which is created by cultivating trust in God. We trust in His Wisdom that the short run trials and tragedies we face are in our best long run interests. Those who cultivate “tawakkul” remain serene in circumstances which cause nervous breakdowns for others. Furthermore, the Quran promises those who trust in God to lead them out of difficulties via pathways they cannot anticipate. We need to consciously practice and make efforts to learn to re-shape our thoughts and words into positive frameworks of half-full glasses, instead of the negative frameworks of half-empty ones.

All of the creation belongs to the family of God. If we seek to serve others, for the love of God, we will be duly rewarded. The highest standards are set by the Quran, which recommends giving away that which you love most. However, Islam is a pragmatic religion and our Prophet Mohammad SAW set out three levels of acceptable behavior. The highest level is to do good in response to harm done to you. The second level is to forgive the one who has done you harm. The third level, which is also permissible, is to take revenge, but only to the extent of the harm done. It is NOT permissible to do more harm than that which was done to you. Even without following the highest standards of conduct, it is amazingly easy to make others happy — even a kind word, which costs nothing, can do wonders. Selfish striving for happiness kills the possibilities of happiness, because what human beings value most is being loved and appreciated by others. We must give in order to get, to create a society with warmth and love, which is a core component of happiness. This then is the paradox of happiness: it comes to those who do not seek it for themselves but seek to make others happy, while it eludes those who pursue it vigorously without concern for others.

 A related article is “Can Money Buy Happiness?“, which discusses the Easterlin Paradox. See also, articles on society & happiness.  This article, with introductory comments on the dominant religion of hedonism, is also posted on my Islamic WorldView Blog

3 thoughts on “The Secrets of Happiness

  1. The means to an end result do not imply that these means are justified, and in striving toward any aim it is the journey that gives more satisfaction than the final achievement. In this writing about the attainment of true happiness there is surely much happiness in itself, so to take it to heart is not very significant compared to simply enjoy it.

  2. David Chester is viewing this through the “flat-earth” Humean epistemology of self-centred materialism, conflating passing feelings of pleasure in even dubious personal achievements (including objective knowledge of the environment in which we live) with the recurrent feelings of pleasure generated by reciprocal sharing in a “loving” inter-personal relationship (which includes but is not limited to a person’s appreciation of his own achievements). I therefore really DISAGREE that what Asad wrote is “not very significant”, not something that should be “taken to heart”, i.e. put at the heart of our understanding.

    Asad, my first serious attempt – back in 1967 – to do something about things going wrong in the world (specifically a marriage breakup) had my wife and I concluding that our happiness was due to gratitude to God for giving us partners sharing our Christian understanding, simplifying our caring for each other gratefully. This was a far cry from even the kindest aim of “the dismal science”: utilitarian John Stuart Mill’s “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”. It is, however, very close what you say as a Mohammedan, that “One important source of positive thoughts is to cultivate gratitude for the gifts we have been given by God, instead of regretting what we do not have”.

    The regret can all too easily arise in marriage and wider societies by misunderstandings due more to personality differences than religion. “Know thyself”? We need to understand EACH OTHER’s personality and the nature of teamwork (so it is not a matter for regret that, say, that the goal-keeper does not score goals). When the “game” of raising a family is over, disagreements can arise over what to do next. In politics, Right and Left usually squabble and seek to dominate rather than cooperate. My wife and I were helped through this by Myers-Briggs (Jungian) personality analysis, but also by Marriage Encounter, a movement based on improving communication in light of research findings about family stability.

    You and I obviously agree very much on economic fundamentals, Asad, but standing in the way of a marriage on these between Muslims and Christians are not only Shia/Sunny and Catholic/Protestant politics but a misunderstanding of Christian theological concepts by both Mohammedans and modernised Christians, disagreeing over labels for which the meaning seems to have been forgotten: specifically Creator, Trinity, Word, Spirit. As a Catholic information scientist I have been able to decode these words, and hope the following explanations may help resolve these apparent disagreements to improve communications between our related cultures.

    Creator: against the implausible pre-information science view of God as a craftsman, God as an intelligent programmer arranging for his own energy to evolve into what we have now.

    Trinity: in simple logic, ‘God’ is a thing and there is only One of them. Consider the example of water, however. The same chemical substance, H2O, can at different levels of energy concentration be ice, water and steam. Indeed at extremely high levels of energy the steam can be ionised and the elements disunited so that new substances can be created by their recombination as the energy density declines. Solid, liquid, gas. We are made of all three, and have been told God made us in his own image and likeness. Father, Son, Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. Reasonable?

    Word: in simple logic not a thing but the name of a thing: a pointer to the reality which is its meaning. But computer logic has shown us that reality comprises not just things but actions, which don’t just stand still waiting to be seen, though their names do in ‘solid’ form (e.g. print). We can thus program and give a name to actions which point us to meanings, as in “Look left” or “Follow the pointers until you see it”. One way of defining what a thing is, is therefore what it does. One thing a Father does is create relationships with his children; another is to recognise himself in his Son. If a Father gave up his own life so his children could live (a possible interpretation of Big Bang physics), that expresses his Love. Not just Christ on the cross may convey the meaning of that by re-enacting it, but his other children in their family and everyday lives may re-enact it in a small way by mutual giving way. We can change the language. In Aristotle ‘substance’ refers not to the things other things are made of but to the gist (ghost, spirit) of a message. The technical term ‘transubstantiation” thus signifies a change not of things but of the way of expressing the same meaning. The technical term ‘eucharist’ means thanksgiving – for a life-giving now symbolically expressed in the sharing of bread and wine.

    Spirit: in our bodies, the solid structure of our arteries directs the flow of liquid blood (life) carrying life-activating gases (oxygen) etc. Provision of solid food and disinhibiting liquid still signifies a relationship of love; likewise the wind set free by God, supplying the fresh air we breath and powering windmills we align with it.

    Going back to personality differences, it seems to me both Catholic and Protestant interpretations of Christianity are dominated by literal-minded left-brain conservatives: unsurprisingly, as little would get done if most people were right-brained radicals forever imagining improvements. In my life-time, though, Good Pope John reopened communication with the radical, only for more recent Popes to close them again, re-emphasising justice at the expense of forgiveness. This seems to me a reversion to a literal-minded interpretation of Old Testament law such as took place at the Protestant reformation, and the supposed justice of an equilibrium economics which enslaved poor Jews and had Jesus describing salvation to them in terms of paying off mortgages. [See Peter Selby’s “Grace and Mortgage”, 2009, DLT]. The c.1960 Catholic account I have of Mohammed portrays him, unlike a Christian serving class largely content to earn its keep, saving his Arabs from a Jewish fate by driving out the usurous traders. Elsewhere the few Catholic radicals have converted kings and taught by example in monastic communities. Like Mohammed they eliminated usury by making it illegal, but sadly spoiled this solution by exempting non-Christian financing from the law; and now the whole world is at risk from it.

    What to do? I am minded of Barack Obama’s comments in “The Audacity of Hope” (2007, Canongate Books) to the effect that the discussions behind the writing and interpretation of the American Constitution were even more interesting and significant than its actual wording. For instance, on pp.89/90, he wrote “The Founders … didn’t simply design the Constitution in the wake of revolution; they wrote Federalist Papers to support it, shepherded the document through ratification, and amended it with the Bill of Rights – all in the span of a few short years”. Okay, “conservatives appeared to have lost any sense that democracy must be more than what the majority insists on. … And right now we’ve got the votes” (p84). Somewhat in the spirit of David Chester, though, on p.93 he sees “Implicit in its very structure, in the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth … any tyrannical constistency that might lock future generations into single, unalterable course, or drive both majorities and minorities into the cruelties of the Inquisition, the pogrom, the gulag or the jihad”. All I can offer against that is Chesterton’s warning: “A strict rule is not only necessary for ruling: it is necessary for rebelling”. We need to be able to express the concept of absolute truth (as in Carpenter’s Truth, a right angle, necessary to discuss the non-existence of side-effects) even if we cannot in fact attain to it. I’m thinking of honest money being IOU’s.

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