The UN has designated March 20th as the International Day of Happiness. In addition, this date coincides with the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere. In these days nature begins to awaken from its winter lethargy.
The spiritual teachers of all ages have formulated their own definitions of happiness. Science has also tried to define happiness. However, there is no consensus in either religious interpretations or scientific theories.
These discrepancies exist because the concept of happiness is vague. For this reason I will not concentrate on religious definitions or scientific theories. Instead, I will focus on the pragmatic aspect of happiness.
Often the terms “joyfulness”, “cheerfulness” and “happiness” are used interchangeably, and perhaps they are different names of the same concept. For many people, however, happiness seems a fleeting goal. Joy, on the other hand, is within our reach. The seekers of happiness crave a permanent state of well being while cheerful people feel this emotion on a daily basis. Therefore, feeling cheerful is a readily available human experience while happiness seems a life-long goal to achieve.
The survivor of the Nazi concentration camps and Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl said once that:
“Happiness is like a butterfly;
The more you chase it, the more it will elude you.
But if you turn your attention to other things,
It will come and softly sit on your shoulder.
How can we get out of the paradoxical trap of the pursuit of happiness? First, we must avoid seeking happiness directly and, as Frankl suggests, we ought to turn our attention “to other things”. But what can these “other things” be? Perhaps these other things are our attitudes and actions that help us move forward on the path of personal growth. In a nutshell, as Frankl used to remind us, it’s more about our inner freedom than about our circumstances. Therefore instead of seeking happiness, let’s seek personal development since walking the path of acquiring virtues can attract happiness.
Let us return to the pragmatic aspect of happiness. Another person who suffered years of imprisonment and torture, is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, known to many as “The Master.” He explains the joy with these words:
“Joy gives us wings! In times of joy our strength is more vital, our intellect keener, and our understanding less clouded. We seem better able to cope with the world and to find our sphere of usefulness.“
And to better underline the impact of joy, The Master also mentions the effects of sadness:
“But when sadness visits us we become weak, our strength leaves us, our comprehension is dim and our intelligence veiled. The actualities of life seem to elude our grasp, the eyes of our spirits fail to discover the sacred mysteries, and we become even as dead beings.”
How to be Cheerful
If happiness seems a difficult objective, perhaps cheerfulness is an attainable goal. But, how can we be cheerful? Joyfulness and cheerfulness are more easily achieved through actions than with thoughts. It is true that positive thoughts help us feel joyful but there are few people with such mental power to dissipate sadness with their willpower. For the rest of us, how we act becomes a strong magnet to attract these positive emotions.
What do cheerful people do? One of the visible actions of people who are joyful is their smiling face. These people smile more often than the majority. Entertaining positive thoughts can generate joy because there is a link between emotions and facial mimicry. Some researchers, such as the German psychologist Fritz Strack, argue that the effect of joy and positive thoughts can be achieved with facial mimicry, namely a smile. Strack suggests that a mechanical smile can make us feel happy.
I doubt that forcing a smile mechanically causes joy for everyone. However, there is an interesting principle that its practical application can be very useful. That is, act like cheerful people. Our small actions based on “as if I’m joyful” can attract positive emotions. Two philosophers, Blaise Pascal and Hans Vaihinger argued that acting “as if” you were cheerful could lead to joy. In other words, performing a deliberate action can make us feel an authentic emotion.
Sometimes it is difficult for us to feel happy. In these cases, it is useless to force happiness with positive thought. Instead, we can ask ourselves “if I were a cheerful person, what would I do today?” This question stimulates our creativity and we will come up with some ideas. Among all the options, we can choose a small action and put it into practice.
If every day we perform a tiny action with tints of joyfulness, it will not be long before the day we have become a cheerful person. A cheerful attitude is the best mental disposition to inquire into the philosophical, abstract and spiritual aspects of happiness. Joy will serve as a beacon that can illuminate the path of the pursuit of happiness.
“Happiness consists more in the small conveniences of pleasures that occur every day, than in great pieces of good fortune that happen but seldom to a man in the course of his life.”