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Where do we find happiness?

Where do we find happiness?

How is personal and national happiness measured? Or is there even a world formula and a right to happiness? A report on happiness commissions, happiness seeking and happiness states.


How is personal and national happiness measured? Or is there even a world formula and a right to happiness? A report on happiness commissions, happiness seeking and happiness states.

„The State shall endeavor to promote those conditions which make possible the pursuit of Gross National Happiness,“ reads Article 9, paragraph 2 of the National Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan. The phrase „Gross National Happiness” (GNH) was first uttered spontaneously in an interview in the 1970s by the then King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, when he was looking for a powerful term to distinguish it from the „gross national product“ that today sets the standard for development satisfaction almost everywhere in the world.

In 2008, after extensive debate, GNH was finally enshrined in the Buthanese constitution as a kind of fundamental right. The „national happiness“ of the Buthanese is measured annually, by means of an extensive questionnaire on life satisfaction. To this end, a ten-member „Gross National Happiness Commission“ sets out every year to record the optimum conditions for happiness in remote valleys and on steep mountains.


Other indices, such as the United Nations Human Development Index, have also set themselves the task of measuring the happiness of a country’s population beyond the gross national product. What all indices have in common is that they attempt to define a „world formula“ of happiness by means of statistical averages, or more precisely: to name the conditions under which collective happiness can develop … and thus, derived from this, the personal happiness of the individual.

The words of the American Declaration of Independence have become famous in this context:

„We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are born equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them the right to life, liberty, and the right to pursue their happiness.“

Bhutan’s prime minister, Jigme Thinley, sums up the happiness formula that is also foundational for Western countries: „Man should decide for himself what his personal happiness is. We provide the framework, free education and health.“

Sounds good, sounded good in the American Declaration of Independence, but can frameworks alone lead to personal happiness? In Buthan, many people continue to live below the poverty line, an omnipresent bureaucracy ensures that the population adheres to the imposed conditions of happiness, and hundreds of thousands of Nepalese, whom the Buthanese consider a threat to the continuation of the native (happiness) culture, have been displaced and live in refugee camps in the no-man’s land near the border.


More like Brave New World then? Is a brave new world, as described so grandly and nightmarishly by Aldous Huxley, the key to happiness? Or is it the limitless freedom and consumption, with no health insurance, no government welfare, no public education, but heavily armed, as envisioned by American conservatives invoking the „right to happiness“?

So, before organizing or granting such a right to happiness, it is necessary to explore what this „right to …“ is supposed to bring about in the first place.


It is no coincidence that the pursuit of happiness, this age-old human longing, has always been one of the themes of philosophy, both classical Greek and Eastern and modern. And although people have always perceived the pursuit of happiness as something fundamental, grandiose, all-surpassing, the recipes for obtaining it, the conditions of happiness, of being happy, remain strangely murky, bureaucratic, vague, even oppressive.

Plato sees the balance of reason, will and desire as the condition of happiness. For Aristotle, bliss is achieved by developing one’s abilities within the community, by being provided sufficiently with external goods, and by spending one’s entire life virtuously. Sound like „Brave New World“ anticipated.


To save the ancient Greeks, we should mention the philosopher of happiness Epicurus, who introduced the concept of pleasure as the principle of a successful life. However, alas!, happiness was to be achieved by avoiding displeasure rather than surrendering to pleasure.

In general, the goal of the Epicurean philosophy of happiness was the avoidance of pain, which was to be achieved by reduction to the few most necessary needs. Too much pleasure leads to a lot of unpleasure, so it is best to strive just for a little happiness only.

Diogenes, known for his casual lifestyle in the ton, also preached an ascetic lifestyle characterized by renunciation for the attainment of happiness. And so on and so forth. The history of the philosophy of happiness is characterized by considerations of utility, by utilitarianism, whereby „happiness“ itself always remains an empty concept.

Writes John Stuart Mill, the father of utilitarianism, a world of thought that shaped the American founding fathers just as much as today’s global leaders gathered at the WEF: „Utility is the principle of greatest happiness and the basis of morality, insofar as actions that promote happiness – that is: are useful – are morally correct, but actions that do not promote happiness are morally wrong.“


An exception among philosophers is – as always – Nietzsche, who gives happiness a vivid dimension in his book “Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits”

„How can man take pleasure in nonsense? For as far as there is laughter in the world, this is the case; indeed, one may say, almost everywhere where there is happiness, there is joy in nonsense.“

With this Nietzsche lays the track to a different understanding of happiness, which is not guided by economic considerations of utility and avoidance of suffering or pain, or which seeks the small happiness between pleasure and displeasure or finds the solution in renunciation. In his consideration of benevolence, he already approaches the core of what constitutes human happiness: relationality.

Thus writes the great philanthropist: „I mean those expressions of kindly disposition in intercourse, those smiles of the eye, those handshakes, that comfort by which almost all human activity is usually entwined … the continual activity of humanity.“

This reveals another aspect in our search for happiness. Happiness is not something fixed, permanent, it has a fluid quality, happiness is a string of pearls that you have to learn to let slide through your hands.


Let us continue to follow the trail laid by Nietzsche and consult the great mythologist Joseph Campell, who wonderfully identified and described joy or bliss as a crucial factor and indicator of happiness. In his search for the deep and powerful forces that influence and guide individual and collective human life, he was also intensively involved with Eastern philosophy, in which completely different criteria of perceiving existance are applied than in the West. One quality of Eastern schools of thought is that they succeed in putting elementary concepts into concise short formulas.

One of these compact terms is called Sat Chit Ananda, which Campbell dealt with for a long time. In a famous quote, he describes how he discovered joy as a guide to happiness:

„I came up with this idea of bliss or joy because in Sanskrit, that great spiritual language of the world, there are three terms that represent the springboard into the ocean of existence. Sat Chit Ananda. The word ‚Sat‘ means being. ‘Chit‘ means consciousness. ‚Ananda‘ means bliss, rapture or ecstasy. And I thought to myself: I do not know whether I am thinking and feeling correctly, nor do I know whether I am living ethically correctly, but I do know wherein my bliss lies. If I hold on to the rapture, it will show me the way to both clear knowledge and a moral way of life. I think it worked.“

With this idea, Joseph Campbell has given us a wonderful compass to point the way to happiness in every life situation, at every crossroads. Where there is joy, rapture, where we are enraptured, there also awaits a balanced and understanding consciousness, there we find a fulfilled, truthful life.
However: It takes strength and determination to answer the call of joy.


The economization of happiness, the „making of happiness,“ often points in the opposite direction, in conjunction with the contrived, culture- and interest-driven, and usually ill-founded demands of moralists, state leaders, and all those who think they can glean what makes life worth living from the tables of statistics. With which we have already isolated two elements of true happiness: relational humanity and joy.

There is still a third element missing, which surprisingly does not appear in any consideration of the great thinkers: love. Love is not only the central theme in every pop song; but poets like Lou Andreas-Salomé and Rainer Maria also manage to find the words that show us the all-encompassing dimension of human love:

And how may love have come to you?
Did it come like a sunshine, a blossom, did it come like praying? – Tell me:
A happiness released itself shining from skies and hung with folded wings big at my blooming soul …

That was the day of the white chrysanthemums, – I was almost afraid of its heavy splendor … And then, then you came to take my soul deep in the night.
I was so afraid, and you came sweetly and quietly, – I had just thought of you in a dream.
You came, and soft as in a fairy tale the night was filled with song …


It follows from all this that the utilitarian approach to happiness, the belief that happiness in life can be produced via the external conditions imposed by the state, is a fallacy. It is a requirement of human dignity that governmental organizations provide just, social and safe conditions in which the self-determined pursuit of happiness is possible.

For the rest, however, happiness is independent of external circumstances. To pretend a right to happiness or even to define and institutionalize it by the state actually leads to unhappiness.

Happiness is a sacred, very individual good of man. To be happy is a natural right of man, is the core of his existence; it is formed from a triad that resonates within, in the consciousness of man: It is based on the human community, it attaches itself to the heels of joy and it lives from the elixir of love.

Photos: iStock, Unsplash / Artem Beliaikin, Count Chris, Denise Jones

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