Just a few months ago I was studying abroad for a semester. I’m from Colombia and I can honestly say that it was the happiest time of my life so far. Now that I’m back home and I had to reflect on the trip a little more in depth, the unavoidable question about the nature of happiness popped up in my mind. Well, after pursuing a philosophy bachelor for five years it something that can be expected.
Why we humans want to be happy so much? It is truly the mission of our lives to find (I’m very careful using that verb here) something that fulfills us as happiness is supposed to do? And if it is, what is the nature of happiness?
This matter is not new whatsoever. It’s on the panorama since the ancient civilizations started to ponder things in a philosophical way, from Greece and the Roman Empire to the Chinese and even the Africans. Every religion points towards the ideal of happiness –with different names and shades and implications- while alive or in the realm of something else in the afterlife.
If it is such a popular topic among almost all thinkers and present in all historical moments –however, you want history to be divided, categorized and classified- then we can gather that is something crucial for the humanity. For philosophy and the sciences, coincidences is not an explanation. Things happen for a reason, and a recurrent topic shows an inherent truth or at least hint at something important.
Aristotle in his book about Ethics, say that happiness is the supreme pursuit for human beings, this is closely linked with ethics as it is not possible to be happy if one don’t practice virtues and made them healthy habits. Vices are bad habits that corrupt the mind and the soul. It’s necessary to note that Aristotle believed that happiness was reserved for the non-corporal part of the individual, is to say, the soul or the mind. Happiness was equated with wisdom, leaving the corporal needs aside.
Then, in the Hellenistic period, after Alexander the Great made the first serious attempt to globalize a portion of ancient Europe, the philosophical schools of epicureans, stoics, hedonists, skeptics and others proposed their ideas about happiness. The novelty about these schools is that they introduced –or developed further- the incipient Aristotelian idea about the body and mind as one substance. Plato, on the other hand, believed in the dualism or substantial difference between the two, and even more, that the soul was a prisoner in the body and as such the body was a jail that individuals needed to release themselves from.
The Hellenistic schools wanted to propose that happiness involved all aspects of people. Mind and body. The spiritual exercises were created to prepare both to endure suffering and overcoming it, to find the true meaning if happiness and reaching it. It’s a fascinating period in philosophy, many contemporary thinkers call it ‘philosophy as a way of life’ of living life healthily in all senses.
One thing that may surprise people that don’t know about philosophy is that all things related to‘fitness culture’ come from the Hellenistic period, with the notable contribution of Indian and Asian religious practices regarding the suffering of animals and peace of mind through meditation.
Of course, the galloping fashion of ‘being green,’ ‘mind and body equilibrium,’ ‘eco-friendliness’ and ‘no pain no gain’ signs in the gyms (new temples of the contemporary societies), is being promoted and sponsored by aberrant capitalism. And people, as people have always done, just follow the shiny and new with no real interest in its foundations. If people realized the importance of logic, critical thinking and that practicing those change things, our cultures would be –probably- heading towards a different direction.
But enough of that. I steered out of topic. Again, five years of philosophy do that to a person.
In the middle ages, Christianity confronted happiness in the way you probably suspect: from God and afterlife. Saint Augustine, just to mention an example (that does not summary all the middle age authors ideas in ANY way), said that happiness was possible to an extent while on earth, but that true, absolute happiness was reserved for when we would reunite with God in the afterlife. If you think that is suspiciously similar to Plato’s thinking, you’re right. Augustine’s influence is almost entirely from him. What needs saving for most religions is the soul and not the body. The body is the root of decay and sickness.
But what means to be happy today, in the twenty-first century?
I wouldn’t dare to presume to be able to offer an answer for it’s a search more than an end, in my opinion, and so, it’s a road that needs to be wandered on.