The Secret of Happiness

I had this canvas poster made as a present for my son though my wife says it’s more of a present to myself. It would certainly take him a very long time to read all the letters at his current pace, let alone understand it. But it’s definitely a present for him. The quote is from James Rhodes’ book Instrumental. 

“I want him to know the secret of happiness. It is so simple that it seems to have eluded many people. The trick is to do whatever you want to do that makes you happy, as long as you’re not hurting those around you. Not to do what you think you should be doing. Nor what you think other people believe you should be doing. But simply to act in a way that brings you immense joy. To be able to say a gentle and kind ‘no’ to things that don’t please you, to walk away from situations that don’t fulfil you, to move towards things that delight you. And there is nothing I will not do to help him achieve that.”

There was a time when I read a lot about the secrets of happiness and the not so secret theories. I don’t know whether it was just the focus of my attention or whether there was an explosion of interest in happiness in the earliest years of this century. My journey at the time took me to each of the following:

  • The ancient Greek  concept of eudaemonia (happiness or flourishing)

“happiness – the human good – is activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

  • Neo-aristotelian virtue ethics

“Alternatively (…) we could stick with what we have – those facts about human nature and the way human life goes that support the claim that the virtues (…) benefit their possessor…” Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics

  • The happiness trend in economics (e. g. Richard Layard’s Happiness)

“There is a paradox at the heart of our lives. Most people want more income and strive for it. Yet as Western societies have got richer, their people have become no happier. (…) This devastating fact should be the starting point for all discussion of how to improve our lot.”

  • Positive psychology

“If you find yourself stuck in the parking lot of life, with few and only ephemeral pleasures, with minimal gratifications, and without meaning, there is a road out. This road takes you through the countryside of pleasure and gratification, up into the high country of strength and virtue, and finally to the peaks of lasting fulfilment: meaning and purpose.” Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness

  • There was also amongst all of this also a book actually called “The Secrets of Happiness”  which discusses the history of ideas on happiness in various religions and philosophies.

“If the lives of Epicurus, Seneca and Ghazali, the stories of Buddha and Prince Arjuna, and the mystery of Job tell us anything, they tell us that the seeking of happiness flows into the finding of it, just as the rushing waters of a river pour out effortlessly into the calm ocean depth, and so cease to rush.”

But nothing I read in this “happiness literature” touched and moved me as much as the paragraph from James Rhodes’ book.

Perhaps that’s because it caught me by surprise. His book is an autobiography describing his journey from suffering sexual abuse over years as a young boy through drug addiction and recovery to becoming a professional pianist. Interwoven into this narrative of horrible experiences are snippets of – often bleak – biographies of great composers and descriptions of their work. These illustrate the idea that great art and beauty can come from the miserable, painful circumstances of human life and can help lift us out of it, even if only momentarily.

“In 1770, a child is born into difficult, violent, terrifying circumstances. His family is riddled with alcoholism, domestic violence, abuse and cruelty. (…) Totally deaf, wracked with pain, emotionally [messed up], [Beethoven] composes his thirty-second and final piano sonata in 1822, a few years before his death. (…) it manages, somehow, to transcend the level of human existence we inhabit and take us somewhere higher…”

Apart from not expecting the “Secret” in this context, I think it is also the understated way in which Rhodes launches it that makes it particularly moving. He doesn’t say, “hey, everyone, I’ve discovered the secret of happiness and this is it…” Instead he just presents it as something he wants his son to know. And ultimately, the promise – “there is nothing I will not do to help him achieve that” – is very touchingly generous.

I had to think a few things through before I had the paragraph printed for my son:

First, I wondered whether there was a problem with circularity. “The Secret of Happiness is to do what makes you happy.” Ok, but don’t we need to know the Secret of Happiness in order to know what “happy” means? On further reflection, I didn’t find it that much of a problem. Rhodes isn’t trying to define the term “happiness.” And he is actually giving us quite a lot in terms of unpacking the concept of happiness. For example, he tells us that it’s about doing things that make us happy. In other words it’s not an intellectual exercise to understand happiness and then aim for it. It’s about doing things, taking action and undertaking activities from which happiness emerge. And if it doesn’t, try something else. So his is a very pragmatic secret.

Second, I wondered whether there was a problem with vagueness or lack of definition. Would someone who wasn’t initiated into the Secret of Happiness already be able to judge what makes him or her happy? Couldn’t they just think they’re happy but be mistaken?  Particularly in the context of Rhodes’ biography of addiction, for example, couldn’t human beings fall too easily for the idea that it is a drug that makes them happy? Here we can probably trust in the idea that deep down we always know that something that fulfils an immediate desire may not make us happy in the long term. The addict knows that although he thinks he needs the drug, it doesn’t make him happy. He may also know that his behaviours connected with the drug are hurting others.

Rhodes’ Secret of Happiness is one for the long term. It suggest trial and error and a bias to action over a lifetime in pursuit of happiness.

Third, I wondered whether it was foolish of me to give this “Secret” to my four year old son? Won’t it backfire on me? Will he tell me that doing something I want him to do (homework, tidying, …) just doesn’t please him and that he’s moving to do something I don’t want him to so much (play with the iPad, …) as that fills him with delight?  This, I’m still worried about. But I will argue with him. I’ll tell him that I don’t always have to be consistent in my views regarding his happiness.

Ultimately – again in the longer term – I think it is better for him to have a Rhodes-like view of happiness – working out what you want to do and who you want to be and not doing what you think others believe you should be doing – than being too obedient or too willing to be defined by others. Even if I am one of these others. And I’d rather feel a bit of pressure to ensure that the things I want him to do are connected to his happiness, not to mine. And it will be a good discipline for me to have to convince him of that.

So maybe my wife is right. The present is a little bit for me.