No one should have to earn the right to be happy. No one ought to go to Kafkaesque lengths to achieve happiness either. Despite the unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness granted by the U.S. Declaration of Independence, happiness probably isn’t something you’ll need to pursue at all as if the pursuit itself were a substitute for some mythical, yet unattainable ideal.
In fact, I believe happiness is available to everyone. Finding it requires no superhuman achievement, nor someone else’s permission. Rather, I believe true happiness comes from establishing a secure and supportive relationship with just one other human being. No matter how unhappy you feel right now, your salvation may lie one meaningful connection away.
A Brief History of Happiness
People have been looking for happiness since the beginning of history, but that does not mean they have been looking in the right places.
Writing over 2,300 years ago, in his book Ethics, the Greek philosopher Aristotle presumed the chief determinant of happiness — or, as he called it, eudaimonia — lay in one’s virtuous character. He dismissed happiness to mean a life of pleasure, wealth or honor. Instead, he defined happiness as “an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue”.
But living a virtuous life may sound like an awful lot of work, especially since Aristotle believed happiness took one’s whole life to achieve it. Another Greek philosopher, Epicurus, didn’t think living virtuously was necessary to become happy. He thought happiness could be attained by simply maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. In his view, it is the absence of suffering that makes people happy.
Eight centuries later, Christian philosopher Boethius echoed Aristotle’s views of happiness but connected it to a relationship with God. Writing his book The Consolation of Philosophy while imprisoned to be executed, Boethius agreed that the road to happiness lay not in money, status, power, glory or pleasure, but within ourselves. Boethius concluded true happiness is God and that people can achieve happiness through prayer and love.
Many others have proposed different definitions of happiness, but it wasn’t until modern times that psychologist John Bowlby discovered a crucial component of what really makes people happy:
“For not only young children, it is now clear, but human beings of all ages are found to be at their happiest and to be able to deploy their talents to best advantage when they are confident that, standing behind them, there are one or more trusted persons who will come to their aid should difficulties arise.”
Like Aristotle, Bowbly stresses that people may find happiness in the life of virtue, but that in order to be securely happy they will need the support of people they trust and respect. So, there we have the solution to the riddle of happiness: since it’s impossible to be happy on our own, what we need to be happy lies one meaningful connection with a supportive human being away from us.
Finding and Keeping Happiness
Now that we know what happiness is, the question is: How do we get it? To be happy, we will need to find trusted others who can provide us with a secure base from which we operate, Bowbly suggests. We may find it tempting to acquire or enforce such a base quickly using money, status or power, but in order to cement real happiness, we will have to invest in others.
Bowlby warns, though, that the more people take a secure relationship for granted, the more they risk overlooking its importance. The first step in getting happiness, therefore, means to avoid losing it in the first place. Happiness demands us to make small but daily investments in our existing social relationships.
Conversely, relationships that do not offer us the support we need may be the reason we feel unhappy. That’s why we need to expand our social networks to spread the risk. The more secure connections we’ve established, the more stable our base from which we operate, the happier we become.
We can expand our relationships in two ways. One, we can build a mutual relationship with someone who reciprocates the support we offer them. Two, we can start a chain and pass on the support we’ve received ourselves to others who need it too, like a mother caring for her baby who is securely supported by her husband.