Articles, Philosophy, Psychology, Self-Development

Wisdom on Happiness – Recurring Themes from the Literature on Happiness

What type of life is most conducive to happiness? This question has occupied the minds of philosophers, poets, psychologists, and religious figures for millennia. While there is no final, agreed upon answer as to what makes for a happy life, there are some elements that recur often enough in the literature on this topic, that we would be wise to take them into consideration.

The Deferred Payment Plan and Happiness

We are never living, but only hoping to live; and, looking forward always to being happy, it is inevitable that we never are so.” (Blaise Pascal)

It is very common, especially when depressed or otherwise dissatisfied, to assume that happiness is a product of a certain style of life. We see other people enjoying their lives and think to ourselves that the reason for our unhappiness is because we lack something that these others have. If only we had a better job, a nicer house, more money etc.., then we could be happy. Maxwell Maltz, in his book Psycho-Cybernetics, points out that those who hold to this belief are destined for a life of misery, as he explains:

I have found that one of the commonest causes of unhappiness among my patients is that they are attempting to live their lives on the deferred payment plan. They do not live, or enjoy life now, but wait for some future event or occurrence. They will be happy when they get married, when they get a better job, when they get the house paid for, when they get the children through college, when they have completed some task or won some victory. Invariably, they are disappointed. Happiness is a mental habit, a mental attitude, and if it is not learned and practiced in the present it is never experienced. It cannot be made contingent upon solving some external problem. When one problem is solved, another appears to take its place. Life is a series of problems. If you are to be happy at all, you must be happy period! Not happy because of.”” (Maxwell Maltz, Psycho-Cybernetics)

Happiness, Action, and Personal Growth

Instead of looking to the future and hoping that the achievement of certain things will make us happy, a far more effective way to promote a happy existence is to orient our lives around productive action and participation in projects we find meaningful. For as the 20th century Austrian psychologist W. Beran Wolfe noted:

 “If you observe a really happy man, you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his son, growing double dahlias in his garden, or looking for dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert. He will not be searching for happiness as if it were a collar button that has rolled under a radiator.(W. Beran Wolfe, How To Be Happy Though Human)

It should be noted, however, that in choosing projects to participate in, pleasure should not be the sole criteria. Enjoying what we do is certainly important, but if we want to be happy, we need to do things that challenge us. Happiness is very much tied to whether we perceive ourselves as experiencing personal growth, actualizing our potentials, and expanding our comfort zone, rather than seeing it shrink. This theme of the connection between happiness, action, and personal growth has been emphasized by many great minds:

Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that, but simple growth. We are happy when we are growing.” (W.B. Yeats)


What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome.(Friedrich Nietzsche)


Happiness is not achieved by the conscious pursuit of happiness; it is generally the by-product of other activities.(Aldous Huxley)

We Can Be Happy in a State of Deprivation, Miserable in a State of Opulence

Another common theme regarding happiness is that our external conditions only impede our ability to be happy to the degree that we let them. This idea is perhaps most famously advocated by the Roman Stoic philosophers. Epictetus, for example, wrote: Men are disturbed not by the things that happen, but by their opinion of the things that happen.William James, the great 20th-century psychologist, echoed this sentiment:

Much of what we call evil is due entirely to the way men take the phenomenon. It can so often be converted into a . . . tonic good by simple change of the sufferers inner attitude from one of fear to one of fight; its sting can so often depart and turn into a relish when, after vainly seeking to shun it, we agree to face about and bear it cheerfully. . . Refuse to admit their badness; despise their power; ignore their presence; turn your attention the other way; and so far as you yourself are concerned at any rate, though the facts may still exist, their evil character exists no longer. Since you make them evil or good by your own thoughts about them, it is the ruling of your thoughts which proves to be your principal concern.(William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience)

In The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn points out that during his time as a prisoner in Soviet forced labor camps, he came across fellow inmates who were able to practice this way of being. Rather than letting the brutalities of their situation make them miserable they had become masters of controlling their inner lives:

. . .[there] were people who had withdrawn so deeply into the life of the mind that no bodily suffering could upset their spiritual equilibrium.  (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago)

What this example reveals is the remarkable power we can exert over our situation. In fact, cultivating the ability to control how we perceive our circumstances and realizing that our thoughts determine our happiness, not external events, is perhaps the most powerful prescription for a good life. For as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

The measure of mental health is the disposition to find good everywhere.(Ralph Waldo Emerson)