There have been lots of books published in recent years about happiness. Most recently, I’ve been reading The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner. This one is a peripatetic look at happiness, from a visitor to the world’s “happiest” places.
I remember studying American History in school and being surprised that the pursuit of happiness was actually a right. My teacher said that happiness was a more like a code word for property, which was sort of a code word for money. It seemed odd to me that one of my rights was the right to pursue happiness, and that this was inextricably linked to something as dull sounding as property, but I tried to accept that I just might not be old enough to understand.
Years later, I’ve spent time writing about happiness myself, most recently in my upcoming book, Most Good, Least Harm. In the book I contrast joy with pleasure, and I explore – through an unscientific survey of a few hundred people – what brings people joy. No one told me property or money. In fact, the most common refrain was service – giving to others, taking part in doing good. Pleasure, it turns out, is fleeting and sometimes addictive, often decreasing real joy when we get stuck craving it.
Even Eric Weiner seems to question the whole premise of his book when he writes:
“A pedophile who reports high levels of happiness – say, a nine out of ten – counts exactly the same as a social worker who reports being a nine on the happiness scale. Likewise, a suicide bomber, firm in his belief in Allah, might very well score higher than either the pedophile or the social worker. He might be a ten, just before blowing himself up and taking a few dozen innocents with him. Aristotle would clear up this moral confusion in an Athenian minute. Happiness, he believed, meant not only feeling good but doing good. Thus the pedophile and the suicide bomber only thought they were happy. In fact, they were not happy at all.”
But saying someone isn’t happy doesn’t make it so, and when I came to this part of the book, I was struck by our obsessive pursuit of perceived happiness rather than with happy goodness. Given that goodness often translates directly into happiness, why don’t we see a plethora of books about goodness with its wonderful side effect of happiness? If we were good AND happy, then the world would be a better place in which everyone could more easily experience goodness and happiness, too.