Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Secrets of Happiness

Author:       Richard Schoch
Published:   2006
Publisher:    Profile Books Ltd.
Readers in India

"Unhappy is the story of happiness". Thus begins the introduction of this book. Probably this explains why we have on the front cover of the book an illustration of a clown (a symbol of happiness and joy) looking glum and morose . 

The author, Richard Schoch a Professor of History and Culture, laments that the concept of  happiness which once,about two thousand years ago, was a lifelong endeavor for a good life, has degenerated today into quick-fix solutions like "swallow a pill, get happy; do yoga, find your bliss; hire a life-coach, regain your self-esteem." But happiness is much more than mere enjoying pleasure and avoiding pain. It is a lofty achievement which one should strive for and not an entitlement which one can take for granted.

This book ferrets out from the ancient philosophical and religious traditions, the secrets underlying the pursuit of happiness.
The introductory chapter discusses three lasting rules  governing the search for happiness.

1. Catch Big Fish - Happiness goes beyond from pleasing ourselves to please others, especially the ones we don't  know.
2.  Wrestle, Don't Dance - Happiness is not a state of passive enjoyment which comes on our way effortlessly. We must struggle for it with skill, focus and concentration.
3. Start at the Beginning -  Journey to happiness begins from the state of unhappiness - a feeling of a lacuna in one's life.

The author states that there is no single secret for happiness but several, differing from person to person separated by time, place and culture. However in every concept of happiness and good life, throughout the history of mankind there are only four fundamental themes - pleasure, desire, reason and suffering. The difference lies only in their interpretation and applying them in the daily life.
These themes are discussed in four parts with the help of  examples drawn from different philosophies and religions as follows:
Part I:   Living for Pleasure:      Utilitarianism and Epicureanism
Part II:  Conquering Desire:      Hinduism and Buddhism
Part III: Transcending Reason: Christianity and Islam
Part IV: Enduring Suffering:      Stoicism and Judaism

An interesting book, but nothing new for readers well acquainted with these ancient philosophies, other than the convenience of having key ideas about happiness well consolidated to serve as a quick reckoner. 
But a real eye-opener for those who believe happiness can be bought !

Key Takeaways:
In the concluding chapter the author summarizes the insights what it might mean to find happiness.
Some extracts from this chapter: 

  • We do not have to become someone else to be happy. Whoever we are, and whatever circumstances we face the possibility of happiness always surrounds us. We are always in the right place, though we do our best to forget it. So let us cultivate a happiness that is authentically ours and let us be happy with the things that will make us so. To be authentically happy means to take possession of ourselves, to bring about the person we are in potential, to become more real. Action is the heart of an authentic existence because only in action do we attain fulfillment. Of course 'action' is not just striking out in the world but a directed realization of the kind of person we imagine ourselves to be. Through purposeful action, we become our future and find our contentment. We make happiness as best we can within life as it is,and do not import it from some magical elsewhere.
  • To search for happiness is not to embark upon a voyage to an exotic distant land, but to return home.Happiness must feel like something that we once knew,perhaps only dimly, but now are finding again, although with a greater resolve and a surer purpose. In a way, we are discovering a part of ourselves we had never known.
  • Becoming happy is not a kind of deliberate consumer choice. We do not appraise paths to happiness dispassionately,as if we were on the lookout for a bargain, ready to negotiate the best deal we can. In a way, the path finds us, for it must always fit the shape and size of life as we live it right here and right now. We end up with the only kind of happiness that we can: one that suits us, that feels right for us because it is 'in sync' with our life's rhythm and pace.
  • We are born to be happy, for happiness is the perfection of our existence. And we can achieve it. Not easily, and perhaps not on our own. And maybe there is yet more happiness in the life to come. But we forge a happiness in this life.
  • Happiness cannot take us entirely by surprise, cannot steal upon us, because it is an enterprise that requires our investment.  It must lie within our reach and fall within the span of our days.
  • That we shall find happiness is not guaranteed. We are not entitled to be happy. We are entitled only to work for it.
  • What matters is not that your pursuit of happiness is sanctioned by an authority figure (be it religious or secular) but that it works for you - that it actually makes you happy.
  • We cannot find happiness in isolation. Finding happiness means not despising the world but wanting to create a better one within it. 
  • It is profoundly human need to aspire to something more, and to be carried by that aspiration beyond horizon's edge. We want to envision something that surpasses our selfish desires, that outstrips merely personal goals; and then we want to attain it. Of course from time to time we shall fail in that attainment, but we shall have learned enough to know that we are stronger than our failures.
  • Our life is an ever striving, and we call the striving happiness.

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