The Pursuit of Happiness


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.

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