Happiness – elusive or illusion


Twenty-five years ago I found myself scratching around for ideas on the subject of happiness. I had been invited to facilitate some thirty groups of between 20-30 people whom I described as the most disempowered members of our society. I began by asking the most basic of questions, “What do you want from these groups?” For so many people who were really struggling with life the reply was equally as basic, “How can I be happy?” Eight years and approx 25,000 people later the same question was still on top of the wannabe list.

Context:  My introduction to group facilitation was unconventional. My mentor/tutor was a young woman with a long history of alcohol abuse and heroin addiction. A few years earlier she had been scheduled to an institution, never to be released as incurably insane. Her life was a litany of endless abuse. But she was street smart, incredibly savvy and not the slightest bit insane. After enduring endless sessions of counselling and group therapy she knew every trick in the book and maintained her ‘sanity’ by playing mind games with her psychiatrists and psychologists. She outsmarted them so effectively that they concluded that she was mad and locked her away. She actually  knew more about their profession than all of them put together. It is a long story, but she was eventually released and became a drug and alcohol counsellor.
It was in this context that we began working together as colleagues. She was incisive, blunt, crude, foul-mouthed, confronting, relentless – a total no bullshit facilitator. Excuses, rationalisation, sob stories and denial didn’t wash with her. She had been there and done that. Without doubt she was was the most intuitive but effective counsellor I have ever met. She would tackle a group of twenty aggressive, dysfunctional alcoholics head-on without skipping a beat. It was amazing to watch her in action. Most importantly, they adored her.  Beneath that rough exterior was a deeply compassionate, caring and good person. I am indebted to her for enlightening me so much about the power of the group and the facilitation process in an such a short space of time. I thank her for her genuine humanity. It was from these groups that I began to observe that the essential quest of the human is simply to be happy. It all boils down to this one simple thing – which is why I have chosen this as the starting point of this blog.
Footnote: In a lovely twist of synchronicity I was in a position to introduce her to a senior university lecturer in Behavioural Sciences who instantly recognised her talent and by-passed all the usual entry requirements for university and arranged for her to be enrolled in a Master’s degree in psychology. For someone who didn’t even complete junior high school, she became the stand-out graduate and continues as a leading professional psychologist in her own practice.

Today seminars, blogs and books on the subject of happiness are a dime a dozen. Some are formula driven – do this and you will be happy. Others suggest much more mystical roads to happiness ranging from laughing therapy to transcendental meditation. But back then it was largely an ignored subject and there was not much in the way of source material on the theme. I suspect that the discipline of psychology was too busy telling people what they should be doing in order to manage their lives and their emotions rather than discovering what they really wanted. Yet, consistently I was hearing the cry of ordinary people simply wanting a bit of happiness in their lives.

It is an elusive concept for a couple of reasons.

  • It is a fickle. Let me illustrate. Dad has just bought a new car and decides to take the family for a glorious outing to celebrate. It turned out to be a wonderful day. Driving home Dad had a warm glow inside. He had never been so happy in a long time, until Junior without warning vomits all over the seat fabric and carpet in the rear. One very unhappy parent dumps on one very upset child, “you have just ruined the happiest day of my life.” How could it be the happiest day of his life when he suddenly became so unhappy? If you stop and think it through, the happy bit was already past tense, history relegated to memory. Was he happy person or not? Was his ‘happiness’ so fleeting that it wasn’t happiness at all? Is the memory of happiness actually part of the happiness spectrum? Is there an enduring happiness, and if there is, can we be sure that we are experiencing it?
  • The word ‘happiness’ gets bogged down in semantics. Like the English word for ‘love’, it has too many shades of meanings. The state of happiness is not as easy to describe as we would might think it is.  Look at the synonyms that follow and you can see that it hard to define.

So, here we have something that feels good and everybody genuinely wants. We go to great effort to try to grasp it, and  yet we hesitate to say we have found it and in case it turns out to be an illusion –  something so elusive and transient that it can disappear in a flash. The question keeps surfacing, “How do we know when we have found the genuine article and what can we do to ensure that it doesn’t escape us?”

To start the ball rolling I decided a good place to begin my groups would be to compile the thoughts of some of the wisest and happiest people around. Keep in mind that this was before the days of Google, and the plethora of  those ‘best quotes’ web pages. The modern internet was yet to explode. I ‘scratched’ around and ended up with a single page of 38 quotes which I gave to  each person in the groups. Participants were invited to choose their favourite and share the reason behind their particular choice. I then waited to see if any common ideas floated to the surface.

What ensued was an open-ended discussion and initially I could not have predicted where it would lead. I needn’t have worried. Things did begin to take shape. Here are the quotes that were consistently chosen (to see the original list you can download this file).


What happened next was the real eye-opener. The discussion moved to a different level as each person shared the reason for their choice. We then began to look for a pattern in both the favourite choices and the reasons why the preferred quotes spoke to them.

Regardless of the profile of the group, the conclusions were remarkably consistent.

  • We all recognise the state of well-being associated with feeling happy. We know when we are happy.
  • Just as certainly, we know when we are unhappy.
  • While there are feelings and emotions associated with happiness, it seems to be something deeper.  It has more to do with an inner state of peace or contentment, or serenity,  or overall well-being, rather than the headiness of euphoria or ecstasy or excitement.
  • Happiness is a desirable state but not an essential one. There are some circumstances when it is virtually impossible to be happy.
  • The more we try to achieve happiness, the more likely we are to not find it. Of itself it is not a wise objective or a goal.

And the pattern that surfaced suggested that there are three clear dimensions to happiness.

  • Physical – there is a very practical and physical element to happiness. Activity, work, and things we do can have a bearing on our sense of well being. Good health, freedom from pain and having enough money to live on are significant contributors to one’s happiness.
  • Emotional – attitude, choice and state of mind play an important part. Depression, stress, rejection, invalidation, abuse, worry, grief and mental illness can leave people feeling very unhappy.
  • The spiritual dimension defines the meaning and purpose we place on life. It is possible to have some serious deficits in the physical and emotional world and still have a sense of peace and happiness which comes from deep within, and, for many people, from a source or power beyond the finite.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant reached the same conclusion in the Eighteenth Century. His words of wisdom remain my favourite definition of happiness.

A fishing boat stranded at low tide at Dahouët on the coast of Britanny, France

NEXT: Happiness is a balancing act, a thing of beauty and symmetry.