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Trying to make sense of life and to learn living it happily.

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Thursday, March 7, 2013

Which Happiness Theory is the Right One?




When I became interested in the philosophy behind happiness, I went to a bookstore and looked at the self-help section. Although happiness did not take as many shelves as some other subjects, there were still many books about it. I was challenged by the available choices. Which one contains the key to the secret of the happy life? Which one will set me off on the right path to happiness?

On top of all this available material, I have this insistent desire to express my own thoughts on the subject, to write my own blog (and eventually a book) about happiness.

So I had to consider some valid questions. First: why should I write about happiness, if it was already covered by others? Second, what makes me knowledgeable enough to impart my opinions and solutions on others? Third (and I think the most important for anyone who just wants to be happy), which happiness theory is the right one and which are wrong, which should be studied and practiced and which can be disregarded?


There are many happiness theories: the hedonism theory, the desire theory, the objective list theory. Many people vouch to have obtained happiness through faith and/or religion, or through selflessness and dedication to a worthy cause, or through meditation and enlightenment, or through parenthood, or through helping others, or through close relationships. Some believe happiness can only be found when one belongs to a community, others insist happiness is strictly individual. Some theories propose specific steps to achieve happiness. Others insist that looking for happiness prevents us from getting it altogether.  Some say happiness is a skill to be learned and practice, others insist it is something with are born with and cannot change, still others believe it is the mix of both. All in all, the opinions are rather contradictory. Most astonishingly, there are many people who attest to the veracity of each one of them.

But I believe this wide diversity, even if somewhat frustrating in not offering one clear answer, makes sense. There are so many people, and we all are so very different and unique. People come from different societies with different cultures, traditions and beliefs. We come from different families and backgrounds with different parents and upbringing. We worship different gods. Individually, we have different natures, characteristics, habits, temperaments and dispositions. We consider happiness differently; it means something particular and unalike to each one of us. We have different worldviews.

Because of such variety in experiences and beliefs and cultural trends, philosophers put forth different theories that reflect these diverse worldviews. Happiness is not an exact science. It depends on personal experience and perception. Since we perceive all information through the lens of our worldview, we tend to like theories that are more agreeable with our own opinions and beliefs. For all the diversity of happiness theories, each one of them is confirmed by lots of supporting information. And there are people who resonate with each theory, making all of them valid for those people. It is the happiness paradox, what more, it is the paradox of life. Whatever somebody thinks up will work for someone, and therefore, will be their truth.

Even the common sense may not work for all. Common sense boils down to repetitive experience gained within similar conditions. But if the conditions change, the common sense ceases being that “common”. And boy, how rapidly the conditions change in the modern village of the world!

Any specialist, even the most experienced and respectable one, possesses only relative competency, limited by their own experiences and worldview. There is no truth here, only points of view. Therefore neither I, nor any of us can provide the “one size fits all” theory, methodology or set of rules on how to become happier. Our opinions on the truth are subjective. Whatever is good for one is bad for another. Different things will work for different people. One man’s meat is another man’s poison.

All of us seeking answers, trying to improve ourselves or helping others should operate from this knowledge. We should not feel obligated to do everything offered or feel inadequate if something does not work for us or just seems wrong.

I think this idea is beautifully illustrated by HSBC marketing campaign. It provides contrasting descriptions for similar images, demonstrating the understanding that the same phenomena perceived differently by different people, and thus, have to be dealt with in different fashions.

So because we are so unique, there cannot be the one recipe for happiness. But if there was, it would work just like a cooking recipe. Even with exactly the same ingredients and instructions, different cooks bake slightly different pies. Even baked by the same cook over and over again, each batch will be slightly different. Similarly, everyone learns how to write. But each of us ends up with unique writing style and a different penmanship.

There cannot be a universal instruction on how to be happier that will fit everyone or work without fail. Whichever theory is working is the right one. Specifically for the people it is working for. To each his own truth. To each his own happiness. To each his own valid theory.

1 comment:

  1. Please see Flourish by Martin Seligamn. PERMA model: this is a theory and what I have from this book from the the father of Positive Psychology is that a validated theory does not change -- any one that tests it will find the result. PERMA: Positive Emotion (happiness), Engagement, Relationships (Positive), Meaning, Accomplishment. Also please see www.pursuit-of-happiness.org. It does a great job summarziing the research. My best regards, Dyan Connolly, seeker of happiness model and career coach

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