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. 

Happiness – a balancing act

Happiness and Beauty

happiness_gandhiWe are off to India. The arches in this image are located at the entrance to one of the world’s most recognisable buildings, the Taj Mahal. And the words of wisdom are those of  India’s most famous son.

Anyone who has visited this famous tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, wife of the emperor Shah Jahan, will be aware of the sense of calm and beauty that surrounds it. Every day thousands of people visit the site and swarm over the grounds, yet it seems to stand serenely apart from the throng. I was captivated by the beauty and symmetry of the structure. Built on the mathematical principle of the Fibonacci‘s golden ratio, it is one of those buildings that looks stunning from any angle and is irresistible to photographers.

Interestingly, when reduced to its individual components it becomes very ordinary and no single piece stands out. Collectively, however,  the parts combine to create a masterpiece of exquisite beauty. Below is a classic shot I took at dawn. While it demonstrates the Taj’s amazing symmetry, it is actually only half an image, the left half having been manipulated to mirror itself into a composite. Roll the mouse over it and you will see the original shot – as well as an interesting optical illusion of movement created by the rising sun.

What makes it beautiful? Why do visitors describe feelings of wonder and peace when they gaze on its splendour? It is obviously more than a wonderful building. Its form and symmetry first took shape in a great mind which still speaks to us four hundred years later. Beauty, for all its elusive complexity (and often simplicity), is something we intuitively recognise and respond to. While we sense its balance and symmetry it doesn’t always play by the rules. Asymmetry and stark contrast also have power to add to beauty. The same can be said of music. The great classics were created following well defined rules of composition. Then along came jazz with the joy of discord and swing, breaking many of the established rules, but still clearly music.

ContentSo, when we think about happiness we meet the same predicament. It is tempting to include ideas of balance, and centredness, control, order and righteousness in a definition of the happy life. But when the rubber meets the road the reality can be different. Many a person who has been dealt a dud hand will attest to being happy with their lot in spite of setbacks and disharmony.

Let’s fine-tune the definition of happiness. Because the word happy covers so many shades of meaning I want to focus on the state of happiness rather the feeling of being happy. Much and all as I revel in the exhilarating and fun end of the happiness spectrum, it usually ends up being transient often with its own built-in let-down. If the exciting fizziness of feeling good is the bubbling and sparkling waters of the fountain of life, then serenity, peace and contentment are the deep, calm waters of the river of life. It is this deeper water that I want to reflect on.

The ‘Rule of Two’ for Happiness:

For all that has ever been said about the subject, it reduces down to the relationship between two things: thought and action.

There is a simple logical progression here. Our thoughts are tempered and shaped by our core beliefs. Those beliefs in turn will direct most of our behaviour – what we say and do. The higher the degree of congruency between our beliefs and behaviour, the more likely we are to be happy.

unhappy When what we do and what we believe fail to align or are pulling in opposite directions, we will be unhappy.
The more consistently we live our lives in harmony with our beliefs, the happier we will be.


  • Happiness is not a reward reserved for privilege or success. While these may bring security they do not guarantee happiness.
  • Contentment is universally achievable regardless of circumstances. In other words anybody can take hold of it.
  • Happiness is found not in doing but in being. It is an illusion to think that we can do things in order to be happy. Rather, the state of harmony and balance between the inner and outer life is what eventually determines whether we are happy or not. It is largely attitudinal.
  • Neither is it the product of perfection. For all the effort we may put in to covering our flaws and imperfections,  we still have adjust, compensate and work our way around the many blemishes of character. It is not the minutia of imperfection that matters. That is the unhappy dilemma of legalism. Rather it is the direction of life and our choices resulting in a pattern of congruency that brings the inner peace that we associate with happiness.
  • A flawed belief system works against happiness. While this might sound a bit audacious, the reality is many people have never put their belief system through the hoops. It is tempting to underestimate the importance of a healthy belief system. Without it we are like a rudderless ship sailing without a compass. Hand-me-down beliefs and cultural rules, norms and mores; fragmented ideas; popular opinion; deference to authority figures and experts;  letting others do the thinking for us – are some of the blocks to testing and owning our own beliefs.
  • Happiness is not going to happen if we don’t make the effort to sort out what we really believe. Doing so can have its share of surprises and is often challenging but the willingness to go down that path does have its reward.
  • Just because a person thinks differently to the way I do and has a different belief system does not mean that they cannot achieve happiness. Remember, the clue is in the congruency between their belief and their action. That’s what makes the difference – even if I think their belief is wrong.
  • Inner contentment does not mean that we are content with everything in our lives. There are times when discontent can actually be a positive motivator for change. To use an analogy, it is rather like the body temperature. Our body can take quite a hammering and still maintain an even temperature, day in and day out over many years. It is one of the best indicators that all is well on the inside. Few things will prompt us to see a doctor more quickly than a rise in temperature. Likewise, the person who knows inner contentment is not going to avoid the stress and strain of everyday living, but their sense of well-being is an affirming indicator of their core emotional and spiritual health.

simplicityWe already have the answers to life and happiness in the common-sense solutions within reach of all of us . . actually inside of us. Sometimes we just need some simple tools to help us make sense of it all.

a few more favourite quotes


The counterfeits of happiness

Australia’s first European murderer was also a mass murderer who also holds the highest tally of murders in the country’s history. He is virtually unknown to most Australians, and remarkably, for all his evil he only ever killed one person, an infant. Yet, this this evil man who forced others to perform his dastardly deeds makes the infamous outlaw, Ned Kelly,  quite angelic in comparison .

When the day of justice finally arrived, he was hanged on a makeshift gallows with these ‘others’ on the first structure ever to be built by Europeans in Australia. He directed more than 110 murders and indirectly was responsible for another 100 or so deaths. The story of the shipwreck of the Batavia in 1629 and the rebellion of Jeronimus Cornelisz on the Houtman Abrolhos Islands (left: scene of the rebellion, Beacon Island) off the coast of Geraldton in Western Australiais one of the darkest chapters in Australian history, eclipsed only by the extermination of as many as 30,000 Indigenous Australians but the early settlers.

Batavia_PorticoSo where is the link to happiness? When the Batavia set sail from Amsterdam with 341 souls on board she epitomised the power and wealth of the mighty Dutch East India Company (VOC). It carried one-sixth of the wealth of the Dutch colonial initiative in all manner of treasure and coin as well as troops and weapons which collectively would have provided an enormous boost to the power and luxurious life-style of the Dutch in SE-Asia. The ship itself was the C17th equivalent of the Queen Mary 2. Deep within the hold were the stones of a beautifully crafted portico which was to adorn the fortified entrance to the city of Batavia (now Jakarta) in Java. When the sip foundered on Morning Reef these stones remained with the wreck for nearly 350 years until they were eventually salvaged in the 1970’s. (Pictured in the Geraldton Museum)

In ways the Batavia story was supposed to be a journey of happiness. The majestic VOC flagship was built to bring wealth and prosperity to the Dutch colonies. It was laden with the best that a life of luxury could offer from exquisite works of art to the finest cuisine. The trade in rare and exotic spices of the Orient was flourishing and the Dutch were riding a wave of unprecedented prosperity as a result of its newfound trade and dominance of the seas. But there was one serious flaw in the whole business. It was built on the wrong foundation. The great colonising countries of Europe were motivated by greed and fueled by brutal cruelty and disregard of the value of human life. The idea that prosperity and happiness is obtainable at the expense of the happiness of someone else is probably the greatest and most repeated counterfeits of happiness. History tells its own story – there are no winners in war and bloodshed. The legacy is fear, distrust, grief and enduring unhappiness and wretchedness.

Most would agree that while power and wealth may bring prosperity as well as many other benefits, they never seriously claim to promote happiness.  The counterfeits of happiness, however, are subtly different. A counterfeit is a look-alike which promises what it cannot deliver. For example, if you were to watch the ads on commercial television for an hour you could almost believe that all those beautiful happy, successful and smiling people have reached that elevated state because of what they eat, or the car they drive, or the brand of makeup they use, even the toothpaste that whitens their smiling teeth and the toilet paper that loves their bottoms. Most of us are not convinced. We know that the promises and the expectations of the adverts do not correlate with the reality of life and that happiness is not a commodity which can bought or sold. This branding of happiness is the most shoddy of counterfeits and is largely directed at young viewers who are the most impressionable.

There are a couple of more appealing and convincing counterfeits which are more sophisticated and harder to pick. Both are perfectly legitimate pursuits and have their rightful place in life. Just realise that they are not the path to happiness. Both make appealing promises and both deliver the goods, but the goods are not ‘happiness’

Head happiness

I have just finished reading an article that proposes twenty things that we must do in order to be happy. I was challenged by the opening line which stated, “You have to do hard things to be happy in life. The things no one else is doing.” While it was a typical motivational article which underscored many of the hard things we need to do in order to be successful it missed the point in what it promised. Happiness is not an action or a sequence of actions or the result of activity. In this age of quick fixes it would be wonderful if we could follow a formula knowing that at the conclusion we would reach the goal of happiness. But that is not the nature of happiness.  Even the most meticulous execution of the twenty points would not guarantee happiness. You may feel good at the end of the exercise, but the article has still missed the point. It cannot deliver on the promise for the simple reason that happiness is not something you do and it is not something you feel. It is certainly not something you can promise. It is a consequence of something you are. Happiness is not a quantifiable commodity and it is not achieved at a head level.

The same could be said for many a religious quest for meaning and truth. The agonising hours of soul-searching, confession of sin, repentance, prayers and self-denial are every bit as much a  counterfeit formula for the same reason – happiness is not to be found in doing.

Hedonism happiness

The other very appealing counterfeit is that happiness is essentially about feeling good. It would be easy to adopt a self-righteous ‘wet blanket’ mentality and draw up a long list of no-no’s which would result in taking all  the fun out of life – you know, the old Puritan line of “if it feels good it is sinful.” Hedonism is often targeted as suspect with its self-centred formula for the feel-good life. But we should not be too quick to relegate it to the sin-bin. Its philosophy of maximising pleasure while minimising pain makes a lot of sense in many ways, especially if we temper it with a ‘do no harm’ clause.

Hedonism is great if you can get it to work and is fabulous while it lasts, but it is limited by the dynamic human state. We get old or sick. Life has a way of changing the whole game, and when there is nothing to take its place the pain will begin to outweigh the pleasure. Hedonism promises pleasure, but it needs to be constantly topped up. Also on the minus side, it draws its energy from the state of discontent with the addict always needing the next fix to maintain the feeling of of the high – and discontent is the total opposite of the contentment of happiness. The clue to the counterfeit is again found in the promise of “feel good and you will be happy”. It offers good feelings, but they are not what constitutes happiness.

Again, there is a religious hedonism which offers ecstatic, heavenly or transcendental experiences of joy and other-worldliness which leave the devotee with a remarkable feeling of euphoria and sense of well-being and a conviction that they have been personally touched and blessed by something or someone greater. The problem with this experience is the let-down. One cannot sustain the pressure of the high indefinitely and cannot avoid the inevitable flatness that comes as they return from the clouds to a dreary earth. It promises a great experience, but the experience is not happiness.

At the risk of sounding repetitive, we seem to be continually sidetracked by the semantics of a word which is used too loosely. Fun, pleasure, thrill, ecstasy, excitement, euphoria and the like, are perfectly legitimate feelings which we can all enjoy. It’s just that they are transient and lack the authenticity of that deep inner contentment which is the real substance of enduring happiness. We need to see them for what they are and not place unrealistic expectations on them to be anything other than enjoyable passing experiences. There is a certain irony that is possible to have fun and still not be happy, and you can miss out on the all the fun and still be happy. Work that out!

Okay! So happiness is not a commodity. It is not something you do. It is not a feeling. It is a state of being and a state of mind . . What exactly is it? That is what this blog will consider from many angles as it unfolds over the ensuing months. Rest assured though, happiness is real even though it may be difficult to define. This journey of understanding will take us into the same space as that ultimate of all experiences– love. It will be interesting.

A stand of trees at dusk in a ploughed field in the Mallee district between Renmark and Mildura, NSW Australia

What makes people unhappy

While happiness might be difficult to define, the same doesn’t necessarily apply to unhappiness. We are usually in no doubt when we are unhappy or miserable. It is also much easier to identify what is making us unhappy, which means that we are better placed to do something about it. But let’s keep one thing clear, however, eliminating unhappiness from our lives is not a short-cut to being happy. It may be a contributing factor but it is not the answer in itself, but it is a good starting point. So while happiness is about being, dealing with unhappiness is more about doing.

An example. I am a basically happy person who is stuck in a very toxic work environment and have been sucked into the culture. I am becoming increasingly critical, obstructive, doing my job and no more, wasting time, disloyal … got the picture. I need the money but I am terribly unhappy with the job and do not like the person I am becoming. It is really getting to me, affecting my private life and I am miserable. There are a number of options open to me which can restore the balance. I can remove myself from the unhappy environment and find another job – if I am prepared to take the risk. Or, I can change the way that I deal with the problems. Regardless of the choices, it is within my power to do something about my unhappiness.


Happiness and temperature – an analogy:

tempuratureWith only the slightest variations our body maintains a steady temperature of  37º C (98.6º F) when all is well. Most of the time we don’t give it a passing thought. Our temperature is a remarkably good indicator of wellness and equilibrium of the many complex processes that combine to give us good heath. It is not a single organ which can be isolated and treated.  It can be measured easily, though we rarely bother as we know intuitively when it rises or falls. Happiness works much the same way. It is not something we dwell on. It is not a specific attribute of human behaviour. It is the global indicator that all is well where it counts in our lives.

However, when our body temperature rises we are very quick to respond, and with the sophistication of modern medicine we are usually able to diagnose the cause of the internal disturbance. While happiness may be rather nebulous and is the cumulative result of many factors, unhappiness is usually specific and identifiable. People know when and why they are unhappy.


The two main reasons why people are unhappy.

There are many reasons why people are unhappy but most fall under these two headings. They are separate but inseparable factors.

Invalidation –   and everything that flows from it of it. I would estimate that more than ninety per cent of the unhappiness I have encountered in people’s lives has its roots in invalidation. This topic is so important that it will be considered in depth in later postings of this blog. It refers to the countless ways that we depreciate the value of ourselves and each other. It can be overt or imperceptibly subtle, but it is always destructive. It is so habituated that people are rarely aware of it, hence they do not develop the skills required to deal with it effectively. It begins in the home and overflows into every other domain of our lives, especially schools and the workplace.

This is where so much rejection and hurt begins. It is where we learn to use power incorrectly and, from an early age, engage in endless futile power struggles. Invalidation is responsible for low self-esteem and self-loathing. It disregards boundaries and is the antithesis of love and the progenitor of hate in damaging and dysfunctional relationships. It is where control and dominance disempower us. I do not hesitate to nominate it as the prime source of unhappiness. The good news is that we can rise above it, so watch this space.

The old city of Srinagar, Kashmir, India

Poor Choices:

At first glance this might seem like an unlikely cause of unhappiness, but bear with me.

On the outside our lives are basically a compilation of things we do and say. Behind the scenes is a flurry of mental activity associated with our thoughts and feelings which are in effect the on/off switches of the choices of what we will actually do and say.

Many of our choices are just routine habits and useful templates that are tried and tested time-savers which enable us to do mundane tasks with the minimum of expended energy. Most of the time they are so automated that we hardly recognise them as choices – but they are.

However, life often requires us to make complex choices which are not only a challenge, they also have the potential to bring us undone. The real problem with choice begins when we are confronted with decisions which require more than a pre-programmed response.
What happens when:

  • we don’t know what to do?
  • others question our choices?
  • we have made a bad choices which can’t be undone and have to endure the serious consequences?
  • we are confronted with too many choices?
  • we don’t have enough options?
  • we are given bad advice?
  • we don’t have a clear picture of our rights and responsibilities?
  • we are forced to make choices for others?
  • others make choices for us?
  • we are forced to choose against our better judgement
  • we compromise out beliefs?
  • we don’t have time to think things through?
  • we procrastinate and postpone making a choice?
  • we take the soft option?
  • we look for quick or simplistic answers?
  • we look for the answers on-line?

You could no doubt add to this list. It is the end result that of interest, namely stress, confusion and self-doubt. Add to this regret, sorrow and frustration at not being able to undo the consequences. A single poor choice can change the course of a life in an instant and haunt us for evermore. It can impact on so many other people. What might seem at the time to be an insignificant choice can have far-reaching implications.

Choices_02Fisherman casting his net, Penang, Malaysia

So, what happens with making choices and why do so many people make poor choices.


  • we do not spend enough time thinking about our choices.
  • we react to situations instead of responding.
  • we don’t listen to advice or we don’t like being told what to do
  • our belief system is flimsy and lacking depth.
  • we are locked in to our belief system making it impossible to change our minds.
  • we don’t place sufficient value on the importance of wisdom
  • we don’t learn from our mistakes and can’t see ourselves as the problem

Again, we could add to this list. But the point is that poor choices are the cause of much unhappiness. They encourage denial and playing ‘blame games’ or rationalising one’s behaviour, all of which compound the unhappiness. Even more to the point, as with the process of invalidation, it is within our power to do something about it. In the process of moving away from unhappiness we might even findourselves walking on the path of happiness.



happiness_lifeThe mountains and jungle of Munnar, Kerala, India