The Conquest of Happiness

Meadow T., Top Stories

In a time where the secret to obtaining happiness is sold on the bookshelves at your local Barnes and Noble, an ironic occurrence happens when we decide to purchase one of those many books and learn for ourselves how to live a happy, fulfilled existence. Thomas Jefferson himself declared in the Declaration of Independence that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Researchers tend to look at happiness from two different angles: behavior and biology. On the biology front, recent research from Dr. Wataru Sato of Kyoto University observed that happiness is correlated with the gray matter in an area of the brain known as the precuneus. According to the study, larger volumes of gray matter in the precuneus equaled greater levels of happiness. Dr. Sato’s research noted certain behavioral practices, like mindful meditation, had the ability to change the precuneus region of the brain, which in turn could lead to greater senses of well-being, fulfillment, and happiness.

Yet, the aim of happiness is much more complex than mere scientific research and the “ironic occurrence” I was referring to above when buying a book about pursuing happiness, is where the undermining quality of the pursuit itself occurs. Looking at happiness as an objective to acquire is no more than a delusion–it’s seen less like a value and more like a new Rolex Yacht-Master to receive and wear on your wrist. Imagine the scenario in which such were true:

“Hey David, want to see the new Happiness I just got?”

“Yeah John, totally!” John flashes his newly procured Happiness to David, whose jaw drops in amazement.

“Hey man, where can I get some of that?” David gives John a look of disbelief.

“John, bro, look. You can’t just go and get Happiness whenever you want it. You’ve got to work for it. You have to pursue it, man.” John seems to get the gist of what David’s talking about.

“I get you man. I think I’m going to work my way up to some Happiness as nice as yours man. One day…”

Of course, this short story line is absolutely ridiculous, and most likely wouldn’t make it past the first stages of proofreading from a Hollywood script reader. However, this is without exaggeration the way we tend look at happiness.

In one study, participants were asked to listen to music that had been rated neutral on the emotional scale. One group was instructed to try and feel as happy as possible when listening to the music, while the other group was asked to simply listen to the music. When the former group was asked how much happier they felt, they reported feeling less happy than their counterparts. The reasoning? When trying to force feelings of happiness, the group was disappointed in not feeling as happy as they thought they should have been–in short, their expectations were too high. This is known as the “paradox of happiness,” or the theory “that those who badly want to be happy are least successful when trying directly to create happiness.”

I take the name of this piece from 20th-century philosopher Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness, whose title seems contradictory to all that I have stated thus far. If happiness is a conquest of which we have to overcome, perhaps we can look no further in the hidden disillusionment which encompasses this idea in itself, not merely in the deception of the journey towards its attainment. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, being one never to cower to orthodox belief, went as far as to state that mankind does not even want happiness. Rather, he championed the idea of finding meaning in life, even if that means undertaking great suffering in order to achieve a set goal. He believed that those who do only small things suffer trivially, while those who do great things suffer significantly. While this interpretation of happiness has been criticized (none other than by Russell himself), there is a notable truth in Nietzsche’s credence.

Think of an activity that you enjoy, or a goal you have set. Most likely, the reasoning behind what you are doing has nothing with being happy, but because you find the activity interesting or entertaining, and the goal as something perhaps you can look at afterwards and be proud of. The happiness that entails is merely a byproduct.

Moreover, science again is on our side! According to an article from The Atlantic, “Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression.” The article goes onto to state other various findings and insights, one of which tackles the question of answering: What is the difference between living a life of happiness and one of meaning? As the article notes, there is a significant and important distinction between the two:

“Happiness, [a new study from psychological scientists] found, is about feeling good…The happy life is also defined by a lack of stress or worry…Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others.”

The topic of what constitutes life as “meaningful” is one of which is perhaps the most asked question of all-time. Yet, to summate, it’s safe to assume that the “conquest” of happiness should never be a conquest at all. The conquest is in the obtainment of what brings about the side effect of happiness, what constitutes your sense of meaning, and what you will do to attain it.