The Secrets of Happiness

[] Today, the dominant religion which has spread all over the world is the Worship of the Nafs. Economic theory says that the goal of our live is to maximize the pleasure we obtain over our lifetime from the consumption of goods and services. Every rational individual acts so as to maximize this. This is exactly what is meant by worship of the Nafs. The Quran discourages this very strongly: Q25:43 Have you seen those who have taken their own desires as God?  Q28:50  And who is more astray than one who follows his own lusts, without guidance from Allah? Q79:41 But as for him who feared standing before his Lord, and restrained himself from idle desires. Verily, Paradise will be his abode. Q7:176 he adhered [instead] to the earth and followed his own desire. So his example is like that of the dog: if you chase him, he pants, or if you leave him, he [still] pants

There are many other verses and Ahadeeth which show that we are not supposed to follow our desires — this EXACTLY the opposite of the teaching of modern economic theory, which assumes that everyone SHOULD follow their desires, and furthermore, that following our desires is the BEST route to obtain welfare and happiness. This is deeply and fundamentally wrong. It is important to COUNTER this message, which reaches the hearts of our Muslim youth from so many media sources — ads, movies, social media showing people busy in the pursuit of pleasure, as the goal of life. The idea that “consumption of goods” and “wealth and luxury” bring pleasure is a poisonous illusion. It leads people to waste their lives pursuing goals which they THINK will bring them happiness, but these goals actually bring them misery. As the Quran states —

Q57:20 Know that the life of this world is but amusement and diversion and adornment and boasting to one another and competition in increase of wealth and children – like the example of a rain whose [resulting] plant growth pleases the tillers; then it dries and you see it turned yellow; then it becomes [scattered] debris. And in the Hereafter is severe punishment and forgiveness from Allah and approval. And what is the worldly life except the enjoyment of delusion.

Why is the search for happiness by pursuit of pleasures a dangerous delusion? This is because one must distinguish sharply between short-term and long-term happiness. Taking a drug, alcohol, or doing other prohibited things brings instant gratification and short term pleasure. But in the long run, these things ruin lives, as the experience of so many people who have tried these pathways shows. But Allah T’aala has created man so that he is hasty, and is severely tempted by quick pleasures, and forgets or ignores his own long-term welfare Q17:11 — And man prays for evil as he ought to pray for good, and man is ever hasty.

This blog is meant for Muslim readers, and is meant to provide them with the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual arguments, needed to fight against the rising tides of materialism, individualism, and hedonism, which surround us all. When we talk to those (the vast majority) who have already absorbed a heavy dose of these poisons, then we should only quote Quran and Hadeeth VERY carefully — the general public no longer has sufficient trust in these sources of truth, and there is the additional fear that they may end up REJECTING these, which would actually drive them further and deeper into disbelief. INSTEAD, we must argue with them in their own language — in terms of SECULAR ideas, on neutral grounds, without invoking religion to support our arguments. For example, my article on “The Coca-Cola Theory of Happiness” explains how pursuit of short-term pleasure is NOT the path to long term happiness. See also “Can Money buy Happiness?” for a discussion of the Easterlin Paradox, which shows that massive increases in Wealth and Luxury in the West have not brought them happiness.  Similarly, my article on the Secrets of Happiness (given below) is a gentle invitation to those attracted by secular ideas to understand that modern ideas about happiness are wrong, and our ancient ideas provide  a better path to the happiness that they are seeking.

The Secrets of Happiness: published in The Express Tribune, June 27th, 2016

Psychologists have studied abnormal behavior for a long time, but have only recently started to pay attention to happiness. In this article, we map the findings of this happiness research to traditional concepts, which have been abandoned by modern mindsets. Despite our strong convictions to the contrary, happiness does not depend on our external circumstances. The greatest myth about happiness is to search for it in the outside world. People think that the perfect mate, the perfect job, achieving this that or the other goal will bring happiness. When they achieve their desired external goals, they are inevitably disappointed. However, instead of re-thinking their strategy, they shift the goal-post, continuing to seek more and more in a desperate quest for the elusive happiness. But happiness does not lie outside us, and it does not lie in distant goals. It lies within our grasp, in the present moment. At the present moment, we need to be able to analyze and change our internal mindset. “Know Thyself,” or self-awareness, is one of the crucial keys to happiness.

Reflection can make us aware of our conscious thought stream, but it is more difficult to become aware of our subconscious thought stream.  Among the many effective techniques for tapping into the subconscious, free writing involves taking ten to fifteen minutes to write down whatever thoughts come to mind, without paying attention to grammar, spelling, style or any formalities. This method works to bring out into the open our thoughts which create obstacles to happiness. Extremely damaging to happiness is rumination on hurts, losses, tragedies, missed opportunities and the like. With conscious effort, we can put away negative thoughts. The concept of “predestination” is a powerful tool to avoid rumination over what might have been. The Quran states that all misfortunes have been recorded in advance, “in order that ye may not despair over matters that pass you by, …” Resignation to an inevitable fate brings peace, while despair and distress is caused by ruminating over what might have been, or what might be.

In addition to suppressing negative thoughts, we must cultivate and nurture positive thoughts. One important source of positive thoughts is to cultivate gratitude for the gifts we have been given by God, instead of regretting what we do not have. This, and many deep lessons about life, were traditional elements of an Islamic childhood training. Saadi writes about a boy going to Eid with old shoes, and regretting not having new ones like the other children.  Then he sees a boy with amputated feet, and feels gratitude that he has the feet on which to put shoes. The gifts of God which surround us are so extensive that reflecting on what we have, and reflecting on the millions who do not enjoy our privileges, is sure to lead to gratitude. Furthermore, as a wonderful bonus, God has promised to increase our gifts if we are grateful for what we already possess.

Positivity is also generated by optimism, which is created by cultivating trust in God. We trust in His Wisdom that the short run trials and tragedies we face are in our best long run interests. Those who cultivate “tawakkul” remain serene in circumstances which cause nervous breakdowns for others. Furthermore, the Quran promises those who trust in God to lead them out of difficulties via pathways they cannot anticipate.

All of the creation belongs to the family of God. If we seek to serve others, for the love of God, we will be duly rewarded. The highest standards are set by the Quran, which recommends giving away that which you love most. However, it is amazingly easy to make others happy – even a kind word, which costs nothing, can do wonders. Selfish striving for happiness kills the possibilities of happiness, because what human beings value most is being loved and appreciated by others. We must give in order to get, to create a society with warmth and love, which is a core component of happiness. This then is the paradox of happiness: it comes to those who do not seek it for themselves but seek to make others happy, while it eludes those who pursue it vigorously without concern for others.

Related articles on society & happiness. Related articles on Islamic Topics.

This entry was posted in Critique of Conventional Economics, Islam - Invitation, Islamic Knowledge by Asad Zaman. Bookmark the permalink.

About Asad Zaman

BS Math MIT (1974), Ph.D. Econ Stanford (1978)] has taught at leading universities like Columbia, U. Penn., Johns Hopkins and Cal. Tech. Currently he is Vice Chancellor of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics. His textbook Statistical Foundations of Econometric Techniques (Academic Press, NY, 1996) is widely used in advanced graduate courses. His research on Islamic economics is widely cited, and has been highly influential in shaping the field. His publications in top ranked journals like Annals of Statistics, Journal of Econometrics, Econometric Theory, Journal of Labor Economics, etc. have more than a thousand citations as per Google Scholar.

6 thoughts on “The Secrets of Happiness

  1. Pingback: The Secrets of Happiness | WEA Pedagogy Blog

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  5. Wow. this article gave me goosebumps because my prior concepts about happiness were challenged and negated with argumenys .
    Truly Happiness is a mystery, ” it comes to those who do not seek it for themselves but seek to make others happy, while it eludes those who pursue it vigorously without concern for others.”
    Jazakallah Dr. sahab.

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