happiness-1In Pursuit of Happiness

by Deanna Othman

We’ve heard that money doesn’t buy happiness. Neither does it come with fame, glamour, power or influence. Those among us that are the most powerful or wealthiest, the most influential or the most beautiful, do not necessarily emanate an aura of happiness or self-satisfaction. In fact, it is often the opposite; even those who may project a seemingly happy attitude are discovered to actually have lived their lives engulfed in despondent misery, and often this is only uncovered after their unusual or untimely demise.

However, when we are disenchanted with our own position and function in this world, we tend to compare ourselves with others--lamenting our own misfortune or wishing we had the attributes we see reflected in others around us.

In one of his sonnets, Shakespeare explains this sentiment:

“When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

And look upon myself, and curse my fate,

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,

Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,

Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,

With what I most enjoy contented least;”

Social media has worsened this ailment, as individuals only see the smiles, travels and special purchases of their group of “friends,” but don’t see their daily suffering, struggles, or failures that are conveniently hidden from sight. Yes, the pages of social media are also fraught with suffering, but often of people in other countries and places, whose circumstances are so different from our own. We become depressed regarding the situation of others around the globe and disenchanted from our own unfulfilling lives at home.

So what is the key to happiness? We might easily chime in with, “A solid connection with God” or “Knowing your place in this world,” but these words are easily said but difficult to truly internalize and enact.

In his text, The Alchemy of Happiness, Abu Hamid Al Ghazali discusses what happiness entails.

“KNOW, O beloved, that man was not created in jest or at random, but marvelously made and for some great end. Although he is not from everlasting, yet he lives forever; and though his body is mean and earthly, yet his spirit is lofty and divine. When in the crucible of abstinence he is purged from carnal passions he attains to the highest, and in place of being a slave to lust and anger becomes endued with angelic qualities. Attaining that state, he finds his heaven in the contemplation of Eternal Beauty, and no longer in fleshly delights.”

Ghazali explains that true happiness is not attained through material or worldly means, as happiness comes from the inner spirit, which is not of this world. He compares evolutionary process of attaining happiness, this “spiritual alchemy,” with alchemy referring to a process that changes or transforms something in a mysterious or impressive way, to a process that transforms base metals into gold; like this process, it is not easily discovered, nor is it commonly found. His text explains how one might go through this “spiritual alchemy,” and outlines a series of steps or pre-conditions that are essential to this spiritual progression.

According to Ghazali, the place for us to begin this pursuit of happiness is in the words of God and the hearts of the prophets; anyone who looks for it elsewhere will surely be let down. To fully appreciate the depth of God’s words and the example He has set forth in His prophets, Ghazali indicates one must turn away from the material world and to God, and must seek to achieve:

  1. The knowledge of self.
  2. The knowledge of God.
  3. The knowledge of this world as it really is.
  4. The knowledge of the next world as it really is.

Though the steps seem clear and simple enough, the struggle lies in understanding their role and implications in our daily lives. How do these elements affect the way we interact with others? The way we view ourselves and our self-confidence? The way we contribute to our society? The spouse we choose and how we raise our children? These are all practical dimensions of abstract concepts and questions to ponder. No magical potion exists, no key that unlocks a perfect solution. The answer lies within the soul of every individual.