Are You Still Searching for Happiness?
by Kamran Mofid on 24 Jun 2012 17 Comments

Be positive, look on the bright side, stay focused on success, and look after the number one, shop till you drop: so goes our modern mantra for finding happiness. But perhaps the true path to contentment is to learn to be for the Common Good. From the dawn of our creation, our ultimate desire has been to find happiness. This desire is in the nature of things; it is common to all of us, at all times, and in all places. Nature, the material of the universe, is modified by us to create wealth so that this desire may be satisfied.

Today, at the dawn of the Third Millennium, our civilisation has scored its greatest successes in the material sciences. Our glory is the willing application of these achievements to daily life: they have brought us enormous benefits. However, in our understanding of the forces governing the relations between people in society we have shown little aptitude. So tragic is this failure that we have turned the masterpieces of the material sciences into engines of destruction which threaten to annihilate the civilisation which produced them.

This is the challenge of our time: we must either find the way of truth in the government of our relations one with another, or succumb to the results of our ignorance.

There is no doubt that every person in the world wants to be happy, and the search for happiness unites us as human beings. But we live in a world that seems custom-made for unhappiness: a world riddled with disease, injustice, loss, poverty, war, death, pain, and misfortunes of every kind. Can human beings find happiness in a world like this?

Many psychologists, psychiatrists, philosophers, theologians, sociologists, economists, and other deep thinkers believe that the root of most unhappiness comes from a narrow understanding of human meaning and purpose. This article will address different ways to interpret human meaning, happiness, and will attempt to discuss how these interpretations of human happiness affect our understanding of success, quality of life, love, suffering, freedom, ethics, personhood, rights, and the common good.

What is Happiness?

Happiness can be interpreted and understood by different people differently. For some, happiness might be physical pleasure and possession. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as it does not become our only path to happiness, otherwise the practitioner of this type of happiness will encounter a lot of unhappiness. Let me explain.

The happiness generated from “physical pleasure and possession” is immediate, transitory, and then gone. It is very shallow (that is, it does not use any of our deeper powers to create, to care for others, or to unite persons). And it does not allow us to connect to anyone beyond ourselves in any meaningful way.

If we live only for this type of happiness, we will find ourselves constantly driven to hoard material goods and to indulge in physical pleasures, and we will be exceedingly unhappy in the long run. We will become bored, restless, lonely, and afraid of material loss; we will experience a lack of self-worth and direction; and we will feel like we are living beneath ourselves. This unhappiness occurs because the human person is made for something deeper, and more meaningful.

Others may seek the path to happiness in ego-gratification. What is this you may ask? This kind of happiness can take shape as fulfilling the desire for being better than others, being successful, or being admired, popular, powerful, or in control. These are not bad desires, per se, and pursuing them can be good. For example, if you are a successful business owner, having a healthy sense of being “better than” the competition can lead to employee morale, more effective systems, and better products which will help people in the end.

Therefore, this type of happiness is higher than the first kind of happiness we discussed above, because it is longer-lasting and requires more skill.

But, nonetheless, problems arise again when we seek this happiness as our “end” ­ that is, as the most important thing in life. Can you imagine what would happen if a large business owner began to believe that “being better than the competition” was what made his life worth living? How quickly would he begin to sacrifice the good of the greater community in order to gain a larger share of the market? There are many real-world examples of this, and of the devastation it causes to innocent lives.

If a person's whole view of happiness comes from gaining a comparative advantage, the result is not happiness, but suspicion of others, fear of losing, resentment toward those who are better, contempt for those who do not achieve as much, withholding information, anger, emptiness, depression, anxiety, aggression, passive aggression, jealousy, an exhausting drive to achieve more and to look better at the expense of personal relationships and growth, and a crippling dread of being viewed as “inferior.” In short, seeking ego-gratification as an end in itself will lead to serious dysfunction and profound unhappiness. To extract ourselves from the downward spiral of the comparison game, all we need to do is direct our ego-driven desires toward the higher levels.

The Common Good Happiness

The Common Good Happiness is commitment and contribution to others. It is the kind of happiness that comes from trying to make the world a better place, or to make a positive difference in the world through self-sacrifice (great or small). This might come from belonging to an organization that is trying to help disadvantaged people, donating to a charity that cares for vulnerable populations, taking care of our families or friends, or even doing or saying something kind to a passing stranger. This kind of happiness results from our attempts to bring truth, love, justice, peace, and unity into the world. It is higher and much more meaningful than other types of happiness because it can last for a very long time, requires deeper commitment, and leaves a greater effect on the world, and the practitioners themselves.

In short, the journey toward true happiness is best guided by an understanding of the nature and purpose of human existence. In the same way, society's journey toward the common good is best guided by an understanding of the nature and purpose of community. The “common good” can be defined as “what is best for the community as a whole.” Obviously, the way individuals in a community perceive personal happiness will have a great impact on the way that community interprets the common good.

Now let us recall how we defined happiness and then relate the different types of happiness to the common good.

Common Good and Happiness 1: Physical pleasure and possession

If one is living with this perspective of happiness, they will not be concerned with the common good at all. Why should they be concerned with what is best for the community when they believe that life is all about gaining tangible, material goods and physical pleasures? Their mindset causes them to continually ask: “What's in it for me?” Naturally, if physical pleasure and possession is the purpose of one’s life, they won't really care what's in it for anyone else.

Common Good and Happiness 2: Ego-gratification

Recall that this type of happiness is all about seeking achievement, power, and competitive advantage. If a community is filled with people who believe this, they will likely build their community around the ideals of “success at all costs,” “having more than and being better than other communities,” and “exerting power and authority over others.” Because principles tend to get in the way of success, achievement, and power will be driven by utilitarian ethics.

Utilitarian ethics means that right and wrong is determined by looking at what will advance me personally, or increase the competitive advantage of my community. Utilitarian ethics ignores the intrinsic dignity of all human persons, and looks only for what will benefit me or my group, and thus it cannot be for the common good.

Common Good and Happiness 3: Commitment and contribution to others

This view of happiness and the common good recognizes that the protection of the individual good is necessary for the advancement of the common good. In fact, it recognizes that the whole purpose of community is to assist individual persons to live out their call to love and goodness.

In turn, when individuals are encouraged by a culture to seek contribution, love, compassion and generosity, their common attitudes will affect the way the community as a whole approaches not only internal problems, but also the problems of their neighbours and even distant nations.

Furthermore, this encourages us to view the common good as something very real – something that we have a duty to uphold. Because we believe that our life's purpose is to love, we will recognize our duty to help bring about the greater good for all people, not just those who are independent, powerful, or accomplished, and this finally brings me to conclude this piece by reflecting on the wisdom of Aristotle on happiness and the common good.

Aristotle is probably the philosopher who first and best reflected on the question of Good, particularly in “Nicomachean Ethics”. He asked “What is the sovereign Good of our activity? On its name at least there is almost universal agreement: it is called happiness”. Happiness would thus be the name of the ultimate and perfect Good the existence of which is a given, which is sought for itself alone and which guides the actions of each individual.

This happiness is called human happiness, insofar as it involves the blossoming of the human being in the life of the city, under the guidance of reason and virtue, as Aristotle would have said. Therefore, the search for happiness consists in trying to identify the ultimate good towards which we would like all our actions to be directed.

Once this ultimate goal has been identified, it becomes apparent that working for the Common Good can indeed contribute to our personal happiness. To convince oneself of this, one has only to observe the major growth in charitable activities and non-profit NGOs, which primarily attract people who are motivated by the meaning given to their work and by the virtuous and life-enhancing nature of their actions. To this end, I am most humbled, happy and gratified to have founded the Globalisation for the Common Good Initiative (GCGI).

Dr Kamran Mofid is founder, Globalisation for the Common Good Initiative (GCGI); he blogs at
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