20th March of every year marks the International Day of Happiness. The day aims to ‘help people take action for a happier and more caring world.’ Marking this initiative, one Rational Religion writer, Safiyah Nasser, provides an Islamic perspective on how one can attain true happiness.
Sam Harris, prominent atheist and bestselling author of works including The End of Faith, was featured in a BigThink video in 2008. In it, he described happiness as the ‘absence of neurosis, the absence of fear, the absence of anxiety’. He also outlined that without these states, man is intrinsically happy. ‘Just merely being aware of oneself in the present moment,’ he continued, ‘…that state of mind is what I would call happiness.’ Is this, however, all it takes to truly be happy?
In my view, his perspective is fundamentally flawed as it fails to appreciate the true purpose of man, as well his nature. Our happiness is not simply the absence of a few emotions. Rather it is the outcome of being positively fulfilled. Such fulfilment entails the setting of a goal to accomplish, and it is the nature of that goal that determines our true happiness. If our desires are simply to attain a degree, or to gain a certain work promotion, then these goals are largely materialistic. As such, they will only allow for short-term happiness. Once one objective has been achieved, man will then seek the next object of his fancy. This series of events places man within an unending cycle of temporary happiness, always yearning for more and being never truly satisfied.
How then is it possible to achieve a lasting form of happiness? Well, to begin with, it is necessary for man to recognise and extinguish illusory and useless desires. For example, following the latest fashion trends or constantly buying the newest technological product, only ultimately leads one to frustration and dissatisfaction. Rather, the key to true happiness stems from recognising one’s purpose in life and going on a journey to fulfil this. The Holy Quran teaches that man must keep in mind the ultimate reality and purpose of his time in this world by recognising both the mortality of his physical body as well as the immortality of his spiritual soul. Indeed, we are told:
“And I have not created the Jinn and the men but that they may worship Me”
(Holy Quran, 51:57)
Once this has been established, man will then no longer work towards the temporary objectives of this life but instead will aspire towards the permanent rewards of the life to come. This is achieved through the development of moral qualities so that man becomes a mirror image of his Creator. As these desires are fulfilled, peace of mind and hence happiness is attained. In other words, striving to be merciful, beneficent, forgiving and kind to others creates a lasting imprint upon the soul, and creates true inner satisfaction.
When Harris refers to happiness as an ‘awareness of oneself in the present moment,’ what he is perhaps referring to is meditation, a practice which aims to dissociate oneself from the world for a brief period, and enter a state of nothingness, with a clear mind, free from worry or fear. As opposed to this, Islam advocates prayer as a means to achieve peace of mind via direct communication with a Higher Being, namely God. The benefit of prayer over meditation is that instead of just being aware of oneself in the present moment, direct communion is established with a Being that is not silent but instead answers the call of the one who calls Him. Indeed, God tells us in the Holy Quran:
“And when My servants ask you about Me, say: ‘I am near. I answer the prayer of the supplicant when he prays to me’.”
(Holy Quran, 2:187)
Fundamentally, it is prayer and good deeds which feed the soul. And it is only in truly feeding the soul, rather than feeding material desires, that one can attain true inner peace, such that even when difficult situations arise, one does not despair, but remains calm and maintains inner tranquillity. Perhaps this single verse of the Qur’an provides the secret to ‘happiness:’
“O you who have believed, bow and prostrate and worship your Lord and do good – that you may succeed” (Holy Quran 22:78)
It could be said that some people achieve peace of mind without a relationship with God, without striving to do good unto others, and without bearing the next life in mind. This perspective has been succinctly rebuffed in a wonderful article written by the 2nd Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community entitled The Object of Life and How to Attain It. Published in the Muslim Sunrise 3rd quarter, 1953 edition, Hazrat Mirza Bashirrudin Mahmud Ahmad, may God be pleased with him, writes:
“No doubt God gives some people a goodly share of concentration of mind. These people strive to attain various objects, political, educational and cultural and as a result of continuous efforts, they gain success in their objectives and attain to the peace of mind as well. But this peace of mind can be compared to the pleasure which children derive when they get toys. They get this peace of mind not by the achievement of the high objects of their life but by forgetting them. They fall victims to the intellectual opium. Their brains feed intellectual opium to them. They do have pain but cannot feel it.”
So what should we do? Do we numb our senses by seeking continuous distraction, or do we seek God and achieve true contentment?
On this International Day of Happiness, the choice is yours.
Safiyah Nasser is a trainee dentist based in London. She is a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Women’s Association.