We could escape from prison, but we can never escape from ourselves. We could try to distract ourselves from ourselves by flooding our lives with every luxury our hearts desire. We could try to fulfill every fantasy our minds can imagine. We could do all of this and may even feel “happy” for a while, but soon, that hollow feeling, that sharp painful angst, returns.
Almost everything we do in life, we do in order to feel “happy”, yet most of us, including myself, have never taken a moment to ponder over what this seemingly simple word actually means (please forgive me if I sound like a douche bag in the first half of this essay; that’s just the side effect of exposure to too many arm-chair intellectuals).
My search for the meaning of “happiness” began in a mundane fashion at the prison library. I picked up books like ‘Stumbling Upon Happiness’, ‘Happier’, ‘The Happiness Project’, and ‘The Happiness Equation’. Those were just the titles available. Apparently, many other books have been written on the subject, such as: ‘The Art of Happiness’, ‘The Conquest of Happiness’, ‘The Psychology of Happiness’, ‘The How of Happiness’, and on, and on, and on…
In one of the books, I found a reference to a psychological study that cited 15 different academic definitions of happiness! People have been so fascinated by this topic that scholars as ancient as Aristotle have written on it.
Not being one to be satisfied by mere reading, I hosted a mini-conference in the prison yard with three learned cons. As I walked away dissatisfied with their answers, a short Indonesian man with balding gray hair, thick glasses, and a big semi-permanent smile greeted me and shook my hand. I immediately asked him about his opinion on happiness, and he answered me with an even wider grin, that ‘happiness is happiness!’
Technically, he was right; or rather, he was not wrong. No one can deny that a soccer ball is a soccer ball… but that’s not a real answer, is it? Disqualification was the Indonesian man’s fate, and the search continued.
In ‘Happier’, Tal Ben-Shahar’s equation for happiness is: “Meaningful life + present pleasure = happiness.” He writes: “We need the experience of meaning and the experience of positive emotions; we need the present and future benefit. My theory of happiness draws on the works of Freud as well as Frankel. Freud’s pleasure principle says that we are fundamentally driven by the instinctual need for pleasure. Frankel argues that we are motivated by a will to meaning rather than by a will to pleasure – he says that, “Striving for meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man.” In the context of finding happiness, there is some truth in both Freud’s and Frankel‘s theories. We need to gratify both the will for pleasure and the will for meaning if we are to lead a fulfilling, happy life.”
I was temporarily convinced by Ben-Shahar until he mentioned that people in difficult circumstances, due to the absence of pleasure, could NOT be happy, (hold this thought in your right pocket for a moment because I will return to it). When I read this I thought to myself: “If such people could not be happy then what could they be?
There is something incredibly beautiful about a human being who strives to be as positive and good as they can be despite the harshness of their lives. Though their backs are on the verge of collapse from all the burdens they have to carry, they somehow find the strength to hold on to their values and dignity. Such people never blame their Creator for their misfortunes, but surprisingly, thank Him. They never backstab those around them, but instead heal and uplift them. A person who chooses to behave in this manner, in such circumstances, exemplifies the pinnacle of human beauty.
Omar bin Al Khattab once said: “the best moments of our lives were those lived in patience”. Sigmund Freud echoed his sentiment 1300 years later when he wrote, “One day in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.”
So, people living in hardship could achieve beauty, but I still wondered whether Ben-Shahar was right about happiness being beyond their reach. This question nagged at me for some time until I remembered the words of ex-Soviet prison camp survivor Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrote:
“If a miracle happens (in prison) and I get a quiet Sunday off, and in the course of the day my soul thaws out and is at ease, there may not have been any change for the better in my objective situation, but the prison yoke lies more lightly on me. And then suppose I have a really satisfying conversation or read an honest page – there I am, on the crest of a wave! I’ve had no real life for many years, but I forget it! I’m weightless, I’m suspended in space, I am disembodied, I lie there on top of my bunk, I look at the ceiling just above me, it’s bare, the plaster’s peeling, but I shudder with the sheer bliss of being! I fall asleep on the wings of happiness! No president or prime minister can go to sleep as content with the Sunday behind him.”
And that’s when it hit me, and I began to write:
Everyone wants to be happy
Yet no one knows what it means
I asked one hundred wise men
One thousand answers I received
With absolute disappointment
Empty handed I returned
On a path through a dark forest
A little girl passed me by
With hair as dark as charcoal
And a tattered crimson dress
Wearing dirt upon her cheeks
Walking softly upon bare feet
Her face was full of innocence
And her smile was a source of light
As she vanished in the distance
I heard the echo of her song:
“Most people wish to be happy
Yet in darkness they choose to hide
Happiness is a blessing
That rises like the Sun
If the skies are clear and blue
And the night has come and gone
And you happen to be out there somewhere
With a heart that’s open wide
Then you shall have your share of it
And you’ll feel it deep inside
Happiness is like a little girl
In a tattered crimson dress
You won’t realize she’s passing by
If you’re head-deep in a mess”