Happiness Revisited

Hundreds of years ago the dutch poet Vondel concluded that, more than anything else, men and women seek happiness. While happiness itself is sought for its own sake, every other goal – health, beauty, money or power – is valued only because we expect that it will make us happy. Much has changed since Vondel’s time. Our understanding of our world has expanded beyond belief. The people in Vondel’s age were like helpless children compared to humankind today and the powers we now wield. And yet on this most important issue very little has changed in the intervening centuries. We do not understand what happiness is any better than Vondel did, and as for learning how to attain that blessed condition, one could argue that we have made no progress at all.

Despite the fact that we are now healthier and grow to be older, despite the fat that even the least affluent among us are surrounded by material luxuries undreamed of even a few decades ago) and regardless of all the stupendous scientific knowledge we can summon at will, people often end up feeling that their lives have been wasted, that instead of being filled with happiness their years were spent in anxiety and boredom.

Is this because it is the destiny of mankind to remain unfulfilled, each person always wanting more than he or she can have? Or is the pervasive malaise that often sours even our most precious moments the result of our seeking happiness in the wrong places? The intent of this journey is to use some of the tools of modern psychology to explore this very ancient question: When do people feel most happy? If we can begin to find an answer to it, perhaps we shall eventually be able to create a life story in which happiness will play a larger part.

You will discover in the stories of creative professionals from past and present you will hear in this journey in Amsterdam that happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but rather how we create our story about it. Happiness in fact, is a condition that must be prepard for, cultivated and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control the story they tell and the inner experiences which result from this determine the quality of their lives. Which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.


Yet we cannot reach happiness by consciously searching for it. ‘Ask yourself whether you are happy’ said J.S. Mill ‘and you cease to be so’.  It is by being fully involved with every detail of our lives, whether good or bad, that we find happiness, not by trying to look for it directly.  Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychologist, summarized it beautifully in the preface to his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’.   ‘Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue … as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.’

So how can we reach this elusive goal that cannot be attained by a direct route? My exploration of the past quarter-century have convinced me that there is a way. It is a path that begins with achieving control over the contents of the story we tell ourselves about ourselves.

Our stories about our lives are the outcome of many forces that shape experience, each having an impact on whether we feel good or bad. Most of these forces are outside our control. There is not much we can do about our looks, our temperament, or our constitution. We cannot decide – at least so far – how tall we will grow,  how smart we will get. We can choose neither parents nor time of birth, and it is not in your power or mine to decide whether there will be a war or an economic depression. The instructions contained in our genes, the pull of gravity, the pollen in the air, the historical period in which we are born – these and innumerable other conditions determine what we see, how we feel, what we do. It is not surprising that we should believe that our fate is primarily ordained by outside agencies.



Yet we have all experienced times when, instead of being buffetted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.

This is what we mean by optimal experience.  It is what a painter feels when the colors on the canvas begin to set up a magnetic tension with each other and a new thing, a living form takes shape in front of the astonished creator. Such events do not occur only when the external conditions are favorable, however: people who have survived concentration camps or who have lived through near-fatal physical dangers often recall that in the midst of their ordeal they experienced extraordinarily rich epiphanies in response to such simple events as sharing a meal with a friend in the Vondelpark.

Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times – although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occor when a person’s body or mind istretched to its limits in a quest to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is something we create. A story we write ourselves. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.

Such experiences are not necessarily pleasant at the time they occur. Getting control of your life story is never easy, and sometimes it an be definitely painful. But in the long run optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery of the story you tell yourself – or perhaps better, a sense of being the hero of your story, determining the content of your life. That comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably imagine.

In the course of our journey in Amsterdam we will explore what creative professionals did to experience these moments of creative flow. The state in which they are so involved in their creative activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.