A History of Happiness

Socrates History

In a world where people have been seeking to understand and obtain happiness since the dawn of man, I consider it fascinating to look back through history at what humans throughout time believed and did in this pursuit. After all, what we strive for to make us happy today is very different to what people did 200 years ago. Across the world and in different cultures, also, our quests for happiness take different paths and have different focuses. Man has been fascinated with happiness for over two millennia and philosophers such as as Socrates, Aristotle and Buddha dedicated years of their lives to the study of happiness. Here’s a brief history of happiness through time.

Let’s start in the Ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle put ‘eudaimonia’ at the centre of their philosophical studies. This word means happiness or welfare and was believed to be extremely important. Aristotle believed you could achieve eudaimonia through performing virtuous acts, something which is commonly agreed today to be correct. Doing good deeds makes you happy. Doing More Good Deeds makes you happier. But these philosophers put more emphasis not on the individual acts themselves but on living a good life overall; this life, they believed, often came with suffering. Only a ‘happy few’ truly existed, according to Aristotle, as a result.

Eastern religions such as Daoism (Zhuangzi) and Confucianism (Confucius) consider happiness to be linked to nature. By feeling connected to the natural world around us as well as society as a whole, we can follow Dao’s ‘way’. Rather than obtaining happiness from what we have (or sadness from what we don’t have), Daoism promotes the attainment of happiness in response to the world around us. By living a life which ‘flows’ alongside nature and our environment, we are able to effortlessly act in a way that engages us with what truly matters. Through caring for our environment and feeling connected to it, we no longer focus so completely on our own desires and happiness and instead find pleasure in the presence of nature.

The Enlightenment was a period of drastic change in society in Europe and the perception of happiness which had endured since Ancient times was altered as well. No longer were people satisfied with being miserable during their lives because the church had promised them a lifetime of happiness in Heaven after they died. People began to believe they had a right to be happy on Earth as well and sought ways to achieve this from the middle of the Seventeenth Century. It was no longer pain which was going to lead to happiness in another life but pleasure in the one they were living. Luxury, enjoyment and happiness became not only acceptable but desired. Which was great for those who could afford to obtain these emotions and were able to fill their lives with pleasurable activities…

This development, however, led to the segmentation of society as class divides involved not only wealth but happiness levels as well. As the Enlightenment blurred into the Industrial Revolution, those within the factories, working seven days a week, fifteen hours a day, were doubtless going to find it harder to achieve happiness through material goods and enjoyable leisure time. Money became intrinsically connected to what people perceived to be happiness, a connection which lingers today despite evidence showing that it is not actually true.

From the 20th century onwards, western societies returned to the ideas of Ancient Greece and Rome, only without the suffering. We’ve developed a blend of two extremes, it seems. While it is considered a basic human right for everyone to be happy, as Europe came to believe in the Enlightenment, this happiness is now considered to come not from material possessions but from the way in which we live our lives. Yes, we’ve come full circle and now take Aristotle’s theory of virtue to be overwhelmingly correct, just a little too extreme for our innately selfish nature. We need to focus not on what we have but on how we can help others. Yes, often we require the luxury of time or money to help those less fortunate but these luxuries alone will not lead to happiness. It is not money and ample leisure time which makes people happy but what they do with it.

So, there you have it. After several thousand years of philosophising, it seems the best way to achieve happiness is to do good for others. Kind acts, selfless acts, for our friends or strangers, invoke in all humans a feeling of happiness. So, what are you waiting for? Get out there and do some More Good Deeds. Make yourself happier and pass on that feeling to whomever your deed benefits. It’s both contagious and addictive, in a good way!

Go. Do. Experience. More Good Deeds