Today is the International Day of Happiness, a day dedicated to happiness by the United Nations. The International Day of Happiness website makes the point that our “happiness is part of something bigger”, wanting me “to create more happiness in the world around me”, “to connect”, “to help make the world a more connected place by sharing something positive with others”. My contribution to that is to share the brilliant TED talk by Martin Seligman on “positive psychology”.
Happiness is something to aim at, but the selfish pursuit of happiness will be self-defeating and will thwart personal happiness. My guess is that the UN intention is that we should be concerned for everyone else’s happiness – and that we should make that our business. The General Assembly passed this resolution on June 28th 2012:
Conscious that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal,[…] Recognizing also the need for a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness and the well-being of all peoples, Decides to proclaim 20 March the International Day of Happiness, Invites all Member States, organizations of the United Nations system and other international and regional organizations, as well as civil society, including non-governmental organizations and individuals, to observe the International Day of Happiness in an appropriate manner, including through education and public awareness-raising activities
Many people have written about happiness and how we find it. Christopher Jameson, Abbot of Worth Abbey and author of Finding Happiness, finds happiness in the way of life based on the Rule of Benedict. He writes:
All too often, happiness is narrowed down to mean feeling good. There is of course nothing wrong with feeling good but such a narrow definition leaves little room for the delight of virtue and the joy of grace. To find happiness, we need to broaden our definition so that feeling good is put into the wider context of doing good and knowing good.
Where do we find happiness? Viktor Frankl was a leading psychiatrist in Vienna, working at the Rothschild Hospital. There he risked his life and career by falsely diagnosing those who were mentally ill so that they would not be euthanized by the Nazis. He had a visa to move with his new wife to America, but, by then in 1941, the Nazis had already started rounding up the Jews to take them to concentration camps. The focus was on the elderly and Frankl knew that it wouldn’t be long before his parents would be taken away. He had to decide between a new (and “happy”) life in America, or staying to be with his parents so that he could help them adjust to the trauma of camp life. He decided to stay. He survived the camps and found there much that confirmed his theories of meaning in life (logotherapy). He wrote Man’s Search for Meaning. He describes his work in the camps as a continuation of his work in Vienna, working, for example to establish suicide prevention centres for young people. It was all about helping people to find meaning in their lives, helping them to discover what they wanted to live for. For Frankl, happiness ensues – it comes after meaning.
What sets people apart is the pursuit of meaning. Happiness without meaning is shallow, selfish and short-lived because it depends on “happinings” (I just noticed the “pinings” in that word). I think this is what the United Nations intend: that we find happiness through (in the words of Christopher Jameson) “knowing good” and “doing good”. To underline that the UN Foundation and Pharrell Williams are inviting people to sign the Live Earth Petition to persuade world leaders to commit to tackling climate change.
Happiness is blessing. It is the subject of Jesus’ sermon in Matthew 5. For Jesus there is no happiness without meaning. Happiness is life giving, not life-taking. He begins many phrases with the words “you are blessed when ….. you’re poor in spirit, when you mourn, when you’re meek, when you hunger and thirst for righteousness, when you’re merciful, when you’re a peacemaker ….”
PS There is a rare clip from 1972 of Viktor Frankl delivering a powerful message about the the search for meaning.