Skip to content

How Can I Be Happy? (in 2 x 400 words)

by Bill Meacham on April 4th, 2012

Philosophy Now magazine runs an occasional contest: Write an answer to a philosophical question in 400 words or fewer. The winning essays are printed in the magazine. My essay in answer to the question “How Can I Be Happy?” was selected(1), and I am pleased to present it here, along with another one by my colleague Robert “Little Bobby” Tables.

by Bill Meacham
Happiness is the internal experience of functioning well, so to be happy we need to find out how to function well. To do that we need to know two things: what we are good at, and what is good for us. When we do what we are good at and get what is good for us, then we function well and experience happiness.

The Greeks called it eudaimonia, a word composed of eu, “well,” and daimon, a spirit. A daimon was a disembodied being somewhere between mortals and gods. Unlike the English “demon,” it was not necessarily malevolent; some spirits were beneficial and some, malicious. If one were accompanied by a eudaimon, a sort of guardian angel, then one’s life would go well; hence, the translation “happiness.” To be happy is to be accompanied by a good spirit.

Disembodied spirits aside, there is one spirit that always accompanies each of us, our own spirit, our own private experience of life. If we are healthy and functioning well, then we experience well-being.

Consider physical exercise. If your body is functioning well, if all the bones and muscles and sinews operate smoothly together and have sufficient strength and endurance, then it feels good to move. The pleasure of exercising a healthy body is not separate from the exercise, nor a result of the exercise. It is simply the exercise itself, as we experience it.

Similarly, the feeling of well-being that we experience when our life is going well is simply our own healthy functioning observed from the first-person point of view. Functioning well means doing what we are good at, and doing it in a good way, a way that promotes and enhances our ability to do it. When we function well, we experience happiness, fulfillment, eudaimonia.

There are things that some of us are good at and others are not. Some have special talents for sports, for instance, or mathematics or music; other have different talents. Each of us needs to find out what we are good at personally and pursue and develop our gifts.

There are also things that everybody is good at, by virtue of being human. That’s what philosophy is about: finding out what humans essentially are and how we can function in an excellent way. That effort is itself an exercise of an essential human capacity, the capacity for self-knowledge. So, to be happy, know thyself.


by Robert Tables
There is no shortage of answers to the question of how to be happy. The Stoics advise us to quit obsessing about stuff we can’t control. The Epicureans advise us to take pleasure in simple sensuality, friendship and freedom of thought. Aristotle recommends a life of intellectual contemplation; and Nietzsche, a life of challenge and mastery. Jesus says we should love God and love our neighbor. The Buddha says there is no God, so we should cultivate compassion, alleviate suffering, and observe keenly the actual conditions of life. Sartre says the point is not at all to be happy, but to be free, while Schopenhauer seems to think the whole enterprise is fruitless. Aquinas tells us to follow the natural law ordained by God; and Kant, the moral law dictated by pure reason. More recently – and with more plausibility, because based on actual research – the positive psychologists give us a number of tips: hang out with friends; give thanks; drop grudges; exercise regularly; be kind to others; pay attention to the present moment.

All good advice, no doubt, but it leaves me puzzled. How shall I judge among these and many other prescriptions for the happy life? I suppose I could try them all and see which ones work, but what if I find something that makes me reasonably content? Should I then quit looking and settle for what I’ve got, not knowing whether something even better lies around the corner? If I kept going maybe I would be really happy, exhilarated, even ecstatic. Or maybe I would fall into despair, stuck and unable to return to my former felicitous state. The uncertainty leaves me paralyzed with anxiety, incapable of proceeding and certainly not happy at all.

Which I eventually notice is stupid. So I abandon that line of thought and go back to my life. I take a walk, do my work, play with the kids, eat to satiation, take a nap, wake up, clean up the kids’ messes, snuggle with my sweetie, fall asleep and awaken to do it again.

And when it occurs to me to ponder the question once more I find that I am happy. Evidently, trying to be happy does not actually help. Perhaps the key is simply to do what is given to me to do, and leave the results to the benevolence that quietly, persistently, underlies and informs all things.



(1) Philosophy Now magazine, “How Can I Be Happy?” Issue 88 Jan/Feb 2012, p. 36. London: Anya Publications, 2011. Also online publication, URL = as of 30 March 2012.

From → Philosophy

  1. My own answer stems from an old saying that my mother used to recite: “Happiness is a choice.” If one can choose to be happy, one would be a fool to choose not to be.

    Now, granted, it is difficult to choose to be happy when one is in pain, or fearful of some threat, or grieving for some loss, but it is possible even under those adversities.

    I have tried to choose to be happy every day, no matter what is happening, and I have had my share of adversities. It helps to find something funny about every situation, no matter how grim. The ultimate wisdom is a good sense of humor.

  2. I had fun reading your post and the one from your friend. “Happy” is such a subjective term that it is almost impossible to define. I am not sure there really is anything as “happiness.” I guess I am more of a Schopenhauer- ite. But I am interested in your argument that everyone is good at something and just needs to find that thing…hummm…. Where do you get the idea that everyone is good at something? I’m just curious. I am reminded of Mozart and Solieri, didn’t Solieri say he was the “patron saint of mediocrity” to imply that none of us are really good at anything, unless we are Mozart, and just to accept it?

    • Glad you liked my essay. Being good at something does not mean being better than anybody else. Solieri, even though he was not as good as Mozart, was good at composing music. Comparing ourselves to others is not the most productive way to be happy.

      Instead, compare the things you can do, or could learn how to do, with each other. What I am advising is to figure out which, of the many talents you have, you are best at and which ones give you the most satisfaction. Myself, I can write and I can fix cars and I can play golf, but I am better at writing than fixing cars, and way better at both than playing golf, so it makes more sense for me to cultivate my writing ability than my mechanical ability, and more sense to cultivate fixing cars than playing golf. Does that make sense?

  3. Stephen Fretwell permalink

    Defining happiness as an emotional state of feeling contented, satisfied, honored, and hopeful, and accepting that emotions are adapted traits that move us to select and remain in profitable situations, we arrive at the answer that to be happy, we need to know what situation is best for us. Know thyself, as you point out.

    But, we also need to know how our enemies have distorted us emotionally. The fact is, we have numerous enemies, parasites for example, that rewire our emotions so that we actually crave something that makes us, overall, unhappy. These new and false emotions get us into situations good for the parasite, making them happy, but bad for us, making us unhappy. For example, people with candida yeast infections crave sugar and alcohol, which give them the blues of one sort or another, while fattening the yeast cells.
    We know about this, and use the term for a clear natural example, “mad,” as applied to a rabid dog, which has such a parasite, to describe our own hankerings that are enemy driven and dysfunctional to us. We know this because our niche is to be smart. Being smart makes us happy, in and of itself, and in connection with other adaptations. Wisely getting healed of a yeast infection makes us happy twice. Once getting healed, and then when we eat and drink well.

    Our main enemies, so we are told, are evil spirits that haunt us. We can expect to be much happier when we get smart about them, and get rid of them. The guardian angels you mention, on the other hand, are full of wisdom about the special abilities and right situations that come with our effort to know ourselves. The malignant spirits, however, make us stupid, so we won’t bother them. Like not eating sugar to starve one’s yeast infection, researching demons is uncomfortable. But, in the end, essential to being happy.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. How Can I Be Happy? (in 2 x 400 words) | Philosophy for Real Life | Life And Happiness

Leave a Reply

Note: XHTML is allowed. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS