Everyone is talking about ‘Happiness’, but so far no single definition of it actually exists. One thing is certain. Everybody wants to be ‘Happy’. Although there may be some rare pathological exceptions to this generalisation, in reality the human desire for ‘Happiness’ is as universal as it is healthy.

More than this, the pursuit of ‘Happiness’ is a human right on a par with the right to life and liberty itself. It is significant that no one has satisfactorily defined the goal of ‘happiness’ in the same constitutional terms. ‘Happiness’ is a universal human aspiration but its definition remains singular and individual. There is a great deal to be said for this. Our freedoms depend on the recognition of our individual human dignity. The right to pursue our own vision of ‘Happiness’ is part of what elevates us from our historical status as serfs or subjects or slaves.

Acknowledgment of our right to the pursuit of ‘Happiness’ was an important milestone on the road to western democratic freedoms. The protection of this individual aspiration tells us a great deal about the quality of our democracy, but it tells us little about the goal itself. So what is ‘Happiness’ after all?

It is easier to say what it is not. Our ‘Happiness’ is not just a spontaneous state brought about by the removal of a tyranny or the relief of a misery. It is more than a collection of ‘positive’ views. It is not just a series of pleasures, even though it is impossible to be happy without joys. Happiness is not the product of any particular set of pious instructions on how to live, how to eat or even how to love. Popular ‘Happiness’ literature is littered with such good advice, telling us to do this or do that, to eat well, to drink less alcohol and take more exercise, and this advice is all well and good, but it tells us little about being happy. This is because ‘Happiness” is not the same as having more money, more sex or even longer life. Health and wellness are important values but they are not the same as ‘Happiness’.

Part of the frustration with the current ‘Happiness’ industry arises from a misunderstanding of the modern psychology from which much of its literature is derived. Therapies such as Behavioural Therapy (BT) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) have been hugely successful. They have helped many more people to address hitherto disabling mental health problems and difficulties, but there is a danger these therapeutic benefits have been oversold.

The human agenda surrounding ‘Happiness’ is fascinating. It extends beyond narrow lessons about ‘facing our fears’ or correcting our ‘errors of thinking’. These behavioural or cognitive targets are important but experience shows us that human ‘Happiness’ includes a broader conscious and unconscious itinerary. Many people share a longing for a more authentic and holistic experience of ‘Happiness’.

This authentic vision of ‘Happiness’ is not facile. For example, it recognises that ‘Happiness’ may also include a degree of suffering. Misfortunes are not distributed evenly in life and yet experience tells us that it is still possible to be ‘Happy” while experiencing loss. This apparent paradox is captured in ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ (Mathew 5, 1-12). ‘Happy are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted’. The truth is that ‘Happiness’ is not just an absence of grief. The question is this: is it possible to suffer and be ‘Happy’ at the same time?

There are no easy answers to this question. For some people a more authentic view of ‘Happiness’ is sustained by a personal recognition of meaning in life, for others this is not so. For most people ‘Happiness’ includes at least a measure of concern for the suffering of others and so a purely epicurean idea of happiness is not sustainable. One thing is certain; authentic ‘Happiness’ is not straightforward, but it is not just about winning the lottery!

An older more potential definition of ‘Happiness’ may be helpful. This is the recognition of a happy life as the experience of a ‘well-lived life’. So what is a life well-lived? Its content differs, but experience tells us that its achievement benefits from liberty and health, commitment and imagination and maybe even a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. A ‘well-lived life’ includes experiences that are unique and others that are collective, issues that are painful and yet hopeful at the same time.

Modern post–CBT therapy has addressed this mature pursuit of a recovered life with new forms of learning therapy like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Compassion Focussed Therapy (CFT), Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) and Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction. These modern therapeutic paths lead us to the parts of our humanity that other less holistic forms of therapy fail to reach. Learning to rediscover the ‘life well-lived’ is supported by therapy that is rich in empathic human resources like hope and humour, imagination and kindness.

A life well-lived ‘mindfully’ acknowledges the presence of something more than ourselves, but this acknowledgement does not emerge by reflex. It has to be imagined! So a ‘Life well-lived’ needs space and therapeutic opportunity to grow. Sadly, for most people access to any therapy is limited, but an enlightened therapeutic conversation still needs to be encouraged. It must be possible to talk about our mental health and our happiness in a more open an honest way.

Consideration of ‘the life well lived’ can happen anywhere and any day. It is arguably the most important question of our life and so that is why everybody is talking about it. Modern therapy has recognised our human ‘Happiness’ goals. To promote this recovery, it has responded by addressing our need for acceptance and compassion, and for a more mindful relationship, with ourselves and with others. The right to pursue ‘Happiness’ is universal and the image of human ‘Happiness’ is limitless. It is a hopeful potential image of ‘a well lived life’.

By Prof. Jim Lucey MD PhD, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at TCD and Medical Director at St. Patricks Mental Health Services. ‘The Life Well Lived’ by Professor Jim Lucey is published by Transworld Penguin Random House and is available from May 2017 or by pre-order on line.

If you would like information or support about any aspect of your mental health call the free Information and Support Line on (01) 2493 333 or check out www.stpatricks.ie

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