Alexander Khaleeli explores the concept of happiness in our modern, commercially-driven societies and asks if there is not something more basic and obvious we all seem to be missing
If someone was to ask us what we want from life how would we answer? Write a best-selling novel, become famous perhaps, or maybe even establish world peace. But look beyond the initial contextual limitations and reply ‘why’ enough times and you will discover that they all come down to one single reason: ‘Because I want to be happy.’
Happiness is the destination–conscious or otherwise – of as many journeys as there are answers to the question I just asked. We want things, whatever they may be, because on some level we believe that those things will make us happy: inner peace, heroin, a puppy – happiness is universally desired. If someone could just figure out how to distil the stuff and bottle it, he would be an instant billionaire.
The problem, of course, is that the things we want do not always make us happy. We can and – with shocking frequency – do miss the mark and end up disappointed, failing to comprehend why the cherished object of our heart’s desire for the last 10 years (or thirty seconds) has not fulfilled our expectations. Or have we been looking in the wrong place altogether? Perhaps the root of the problem is that we have failed to ask the most important question of all: What is happiness and is there a particular way of attaining it?
I am sure most of us would agree that our material wellbeing has a role to play here. It is, after all, hard to be happy if you are cold, unprotected and starving (unless you happen to be one of those rare ascetic types that thrive on being in a state of wilful and abject poverty). But are material possessions the best guarantor of leading a fulfilled life? Walk down the street, turn on the television or ride a bus almost anywhere in the world today and you could be forgiven for believing it so: The Future’s Bright, Have It Your Way, Just Do It. From every direction our senses are assailed by advertisements and slogans promising us that our life will be much improved if we just buy this one must-have product. We know that a smart phone, hamburger or pair of trainers are not really going to change our lives, but perhaps, on a more subtle level, we do believe that material wealth and the opportunities it brings can make us happy; a good job, a nice home, a better future for our children – what could be wrong with that?
The rags-to-riches film, The Pursuit of Happiness, exemplifies this ideal. Will Smith plays a single-dad who struggles to make ends meet and guarantee a better future for himself and his son. The story’s happy ending comes when Smith, through determination and hard-work, wins a coveted full-time position at a stockbroking firm. Aside from an improvement in his material status, Smith’s character remains fundamentally unchanged throughout the film; any positive personal qualities that made this transition possible were already shown to be there at its outset. So the “happiness” of the film’s title is conceived of in almost exclusively material terms. The antithesis of this success-driven fairy tale is Arthur Miller’s classic play, Death of a Salesman. Here, we see Willy Loman, the eponymous salesman, who is no less determined or hard-working than the character Smith plays, driven to exhaustion, madness and, finally, death in an effort to secure a better future for his own children. But the real tragedy of the play is that while Miller wrote it more than half a century ago, we have yet to heed its wisdom.
Psychological studies have shown that beyond having enough money to comfortably afford food, clothing and shelter, wealth contributes very little to a person’s actual happiness. It should come as no surprise then that a study conducted in 2011 showed that depression was most prevalent in countries that were either very wealthy or had very high levels of income inequality; places where most people either enjoy substantial material wealth or are most aware of their lack of it. In an ironic twist to The Pursuit of Happiness, it seems that depression is a disease that afflicts the affluent.
The root of this problem is that, aside from the logic of continuous material accumulation, liberal capitalism has very little in the way of concrete advice for us; it is the irresponsible parent that lets its children learn – by trial and error – what is good for them. Essentially speaking, we are free to pursue happiness however we want as long as we do not interfere with other people’s freedom to do likewise. Capitalism maintains a mercantile agnosticism about the specific ways in which its consumers choose to seek fulfilment in life. An archetypal capitalist thinks only in terms of profit; by not endorsing any one view of human happiness but maximising “consumer choice”, he maximises his opportunities to “sell” you whatever goods or services you think will make you happy. Our ideal of happiness is only real to him insofar as it can be commodified and sold back to us, not insofar as any of the beliefs it entails are actually true. This is commodity realism.
A classic example of this is the self-help industry. Despite the complete lack of scientific evidence of its efficacy, it has grown into a multi-billion dollar global enterprise. It is perhaps the closest thing we have to happiness distilled and bottled for our consumption, or so its gurus would have us believe. We buy their books, films and seminars to be told that we can be happy if only we want it badly enough. A combination of feel-good stories, magical thinking and fetishised eastern philosophies promise to answer all existential questions. But behind all of this is still the unspoken assumption that you can buy happiness as a sort of commodity. Self-help and the pseudo-philosophies that go with it are to happiness what fast-food is to hunger; a quick and convenient fix for sure, but one that is ultimately lacking in substance – do you want to supersize that inner-peace?
Islam, on the other hand, has some very clear ideas about what human happiness entails and it does not think we should waste our time with anything less than the truth unlike capitalism which, by implication, denies the existence of anything beyond the material world. Islam sees Man’s material existence in the context of his ultimate origin and destination. And if Man’s life in this world is not isolated from what comes after it, neither, then, is the question of his ultimate happiness.
The Qur’an uses many words to signify happiness. Two of the most common are farah (exultation) and istibshar (rejoicing). In almost all instances they are experienced in response to some external factor. Sometimes they are used in the context of the martyrs exulting in God’s rewards (3:170-171) or the faithful at God’s help (30:4-5), but more often they are used to denote a temporary and misplaced sense of happiness, which reflect the material happiness promoted in our modern societies; fickle, fleeting and ultimately unsatisfying.
Compare these to the word sa’adah. (felicity) which appears in only one place of the Qur’an: ‘The day it comes, no one shall speak except by His leave; some of them will be wretched and [some] felicitous… As for the felicitous, they will be in paradise.’ (11:105, 109)
Sa’adah here represents the enduring happiness of the hereafter, and the verse implies that the wretched (shaqi) and the felicitous (sa’id) are already wretched and felicitous before arriving in their respective abodes of Hell and Heaven. They do not rely on external stimuli, but emanate from within the very core of a person’s own being. It is only fitting that while the relative happiness of farah and istibshar appears frequently and in various contexts, the genuine but elusive happiness of sa’adah appears only once throughout the entire Qur’an.
This does not mean that Islam promises us happiness in the hereafter at the expense of happiness in this world; the classical Islamic theologians have said that God revealed the Shari’ah to guarantee us happiness in this world and in the hereafter. Not only does Islam allow us ample opportunities to enjoy the bounties of this world – (2:172) – but it also helps us to have the correct attitude towards worldly success: (13:26) More importantly, Islam also provides us with a way of life that is in accordance with our innate human nature (fitrah). In other words, practising Islam should make us happy because it represents the natural and healthy state of human life: (9:111)
So whereas Capitalism leaves the ultimate question of human happiness open, Islam offers a single clear answer. But far from limiting us, we can find a surprising clarity and freedom once we have our priorities straight. Whereas modern societies seem desperate for us to be in a perpetually happy “mood”, Islam recognises that happiness is something much more deeply rooted in our souls and that there is more to life than whatever is going on right now and whatever goals we might have in our mind at this point of time. Yes, it is not only OK but healthy and necessary to want things, so long as we keep in mind our ultimate purpose and value these things in relation to it. Our success and happiness in this world derives not from the contents of our homes, but the contents of our hearts; we are happy because we are living a good life in accordance with God’s will. And while we may often find that the things we want in this world disappoint us, God never will.
Written by Alexander Khaleeli
This article was originally published in Islam Today magazine.