He who does not worry about happiness is the happiest, Seneca once said and wrote a comprehensive book on this topic. Nowadays, book after book is published on the subject. The desire for happiness is more present than ever, its fulfilment an important driving force of the economy. But in order to recognise it, one has to be able to differentiate.
By Wilhelm Schmid
Translated from the German by Christoph Ulbert, LaToya Vaughn, Viktorija Tapai, Maciej Maj and Margarita Müller
What is happiness? What does happiness mean for me? Anyone who wonders about this should look closely because it becomes evident that there is not only one, but several kinds of happiness at play. It would make sense to distinguish between them.
First of all, there is chance, which is important throughout life. People wish for something that unexpectedly and naturally comes to them and which turns out advantageously for them. The English word luck stems from the early Middle Dutch luc, the short form for gheluc meaning ‘happiness’ or ‘good fortune’. It also has cognates such as the German word Glück (fortune, good luck) and the Middle High German gelücke, which designated the chance outcome of an affair, yet originally not only in the advantageous, but also in the disadvantageous sense. The essential feature of chance is unavailability; available is only the attitude one can assume.
They can open themselves to or ignore a chance encounter, experience, or a piece of information. Both within themselves as well as in life, people can hold up the butterfly net in which chance can get caught, or can build a wall around themselves, so chance won’t get through. It seems as if the openness of people inspires chance. It likes to stop where it feels at home and is not being accused of its bad timing – it’s as if chance were a living being that knows exactly when it is welcome and when not. Furthermore, forcing chance, being offensive about it, would mean that you’re trying your luck. In other words, you’re going for it, even though it’s unavailable. The person who hopes for a chance encounter, experience, or a piece of information is well advised to communicate this intention to others. The Internet can also be used to do so. The likelihood for something good to come out of this is much higher than if hope remains locked up inside. If you never play the lottery, you have no chance of winning.
In this day and age, people in pursuit of happiness see it as a matter of being well and healthy and feeling good in general. They want to have fun, have wonderful experiences, feel pleasure and be successful. In a nutshell, they want to experience all the things that are considered positive. In addition to chance, life is also about a special kind of happiness you might call the feel-good moment. This moment, or rather these moments, are all the happy times life presents you with. They are up for grabs if you want them and can be actively cultivated. These are moments which can be sought and found and are so beautiful that you want to hold onto them. A lot can be done to achieve this special kind of happiness, if it doesn’t, in fact, come about by itself. With a little experience, you know what ingredients you need to make your own happiness and work on it day after day. A feel-good moment is an aromatic, delicious cup of coffee. Or a beautiful film or the intimate conversation between friends and lovers that feels so comfortable you get lost in it completely since the attention of the other feels so good that saturation can almost never be reached. Or it can be the kind of wellness that can be enjoyed in a sauna or elsewhere. And let’s not forget about chocolate, preferably with a high cocoa content. Or it can be overcoming a major challenge, gaining new knowledge or experience, breaking unknown ground, immersing oneself in unfamiliar territory. It can also be the pursuit of novel activities, as long as they provide the attraction of being new. And even anticipating and desiring something can provide you with more happiness than actually savouring that very thing and, on top of that, can last much longer. The problem is that, in the end, this kind of happiness never lasts for long. What about the moments after, what about the time in between? Nowadays people aren’t prepared for these bad patches, this stagnation. They find it difficult to get through the dreary, mundane, everyday times in which they have to ‘recharge’ their desire. It’s hard to deal with the ordinary times of this life. The most important thing, however, is to accept those stretches of time as part of life. Only then can you learn how to get through them successfully. And then there is another kind of happiness.
The greater happiness, called the happiness of abundance, always includes the other side of the coin: the unpleasant, the painful and the negative, which all have to be dealt with. Happiness of abundance is influenced only by people’s attitude towards life, which they have adopted and live by, based on their reflections on life with all its peculiarities and uncertainties. Aren’t all things and all experiences full of polarity, differences and contradictions? The fact of the matter is that the negative cannot simply be erased, no matter how many cosmetic surgeries a person has had, how much new medicine is developed and how many political reforms are implemented by a government. If I can see life as something beautiful and worth living despite all the bad things going on, then I might achieve this happiness of abundance. It is more comprehensive and lasts longer than chance and all the feel-good moments combined. It is true philosophical happiness, unaffected by coincidence and luck, a person‘s sense of well-being or their indispositions. It is the equilibrium of life and needs to be obtained again and again. It doesn‘t necessarily apply to one particular moment but rather to all the aspects of life.
It applies not only to success, but also to failure; not only to accomplishment, but also to defeat; not only to pleasure, but also to pain, not only to health, but also to sickness; not only to merriment, but also to sadness; not only to contentment, but also to dissatisfaction, not only to rich days, but also to empty days. The crucial step towards this kind of happiness is made by determining one's own attitude. None of the above-mentioned ‘kinds of happiness’ are dispensable, but we need to rediscover the third one in these modern times full of convenience and fastidiousness.
Wilhelm Schmid teaches philosophy at the University of Erfurt. His book Glück: Alles, was Sie darüber wissen müssen, und warum es nicht das Wichtigste im Leben ist (happiness - everything you need to know about it, and why it isn't the most important thing in life) was published in Germany in 2007 by Insel publishers. In November 2013, he received the science prize of the Swiss Egnér foundation for his previous work on the art of living.
More articles to the topics of happiness, wishes and the good life you will find either online or in our magazine Wish-to-Happiness. Finly illustrated and lightly readable on tablet-computers and screens the PDF-magazine contains all articles and pictures as well as additional numbers and quotatians.
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