Almost all empirical studies on happiness conclude that it is not to be found in material things: income, good looks, financial independence, high social status – things we all run after throughout our lives – have been found to be utterly useless in providing us with the one thing we’re truly after: happiness.
The Greek philosopher Epicurus made much the same observation thousands of years ago, advocating a negative approach to happiness. He argued that only when we’re in pain do we seek pleasure, which often causes more pain. So to break free of that cycle, we must strive to attain a mindset that strives to minimise pain.
But then he also warns that we must gain the wisdom of differentiating between pleasures that cause pain and pain that are necessary for pleasure. For instance, drinking copious amount of alcohol may give you pleasure, but it leads to lasting pain. Emotions such as sadness and grief may be painful in the near term, but they make us stronger, more compassionate people, which in turn make us happier.
In the same vein, Epicurus lists three things that people need to be happy: physical and emotional freedom, likeminded friends with whom to converse and share, and solitude in which to reflect and find meaning. If a man has these three, he says, he has enough to be happy no matter how wealthy or impoverished he is.
In our lives today, we all work for someone or the other, we don’t have time for our friends, and we don’t have time for ourselves. Is it any wonder that so few of us are happy?