The Happy Medium Extract: Chapter 1 A Short History of Happiness
The Happy Medium is a self-help guide to swapping the weight of ‘having it all’ to having more with less. Bestselling author, Annmarie O’Connor, a self-styled ‘inexpert expert’ on the subject of mindfulness, will help you gain perspective on your personal satisfaction by using positive psychology to clear unsustainable expectations of what constitutes a life well-lived.
It’s the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top. robert m. pirsig, zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance
This history of happiness is a long story, so I’m going to give you the long story short. Consider it a condensed-milk summation of the subject: concentrated with a proven shelf life and great over coffee. Here’s why.
Happiness may appear to be the preserve of the privileged, a New Age nuance or a pastime for those with too much time to think. In reality, it has long been a hot-button topic, one which has served as a social yardstick and moral compass for civilisations from West to East. Far from being the preserve of ladies fist-pumping the sky in tampon ads or yoghurt marketers hawking digestive well-being, its provenance is part of a wider ethical ecology where a mindful attitude is its own reward.
Ancient Greek philosophers, like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, ushered in a radical discourse on the subject, collectively shaping Western civilisation as we know it. These three fellas basically put the responsibility squarely on our shoulders. No hiding behind divine providence or the flimsy excuse of fate. No siree. The present held all the possibilities for life satisfaction. It was time for us to step up to the plate of self-determination and stop whining about why nobody was feeding us grapes.
Socrates (469–399 BC), chief influencer and seminal tastemaker, was the first to get the ball rolling. His pioneering belief that happiness was achievable with a bit of graft blew a eureka-sized hole in the assumption that the gods controlled the gig. Armed with a mix of ethics and no-nonsense practicality, Socrates suggested that a bit of balance can go a long way to keeping us satisfied; in other words, we shouldn’t confuse wants with needs. His Socratic method – a precursor to modern mindfulness – focused on exploring the present moment with curiosity and exerting personal influence over one’s quota of contentment. Socratic happiness wasn’t a magic pill, a jammy inheritance or a birthright – it was a personal achievement.
Plato (428–347 BC), a student of Socrates, delved deeper into the ‘virtue’, or moral code, of happiness. The Platonic viewpoint positioned happiness as that which enabled people to live good lives. Not to be confused with our contemporary interpretation of the good life (leisure, wealth and pleasure), Plato saw happiness as having a broader social function, a duty to the community and justice – well-being, if you will. Also, this guy had no time for idleness, excess or people with notions. Your granny would’ve loved him.
Aristotle (384–322 BC), a student of Plato, was a die-hard happy-hunter. In fact, his dedication to the genre would make the Amazon self-help back catalogue look like a pity party. Completing the Greek circle of thought, his teachings co-opted the Socratic belief in personal responsibility while expanding his mentor’s definition of the good life to include broader assets like health, wealth, friends and the odd glass of wine. Not that self-indulgence was indulged; quite the opposite. Aristotle believed we all have a happy medium – or what he dubbed ‘the mean’. In other words, you wouldn’t catch him carousing at a toga party if he had a philosophy lecture in Plato’s Academy the next day. Smart thinking.
Meanwhile, in another part of town, Eastern mystics and sages such as Lao Tzu, Buddha and Confucius were preaching a similar ideology, albeit with less hustle, more flow. These guys advocated keeping a keen eye on the ‘mean’ or ‘middle path’, while exercising mindfulness, moderation and morality in all aspects of life. Extremes weren’t on the curriculum.
Legendary Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (c. 601–531 BC) led the charge. Credited with inspiring Taoism and the revered Tao Te Ching, an instructional manual on living the good life, his word was gospel. The Tao, or ‘way’, was promoted as the even path to happiness and harmony (the authentic self). To find it, it was necessary to accept and live in unison with what surrounded us. His happiness hack? Practicing wu wei, otherwise known as focused attention or ‘flowing’. If, as Tzu believed, life’s best decisions are made with effortless action, then slowing down to smell the roses ain’t such a bad thing. Cancel your 3 o’clock. Life just dropped by.
Buddha (563–483 BC), a.k.a. ‘the awakened one’, shared Lao Tzu’s belief in going with the flow. Born into a wealthy Nepalese family, Buddha awoke to the fact that all of creation is defined by suffering. Far from turning him into a killjoy, his approach to dealing with this revelation was to adopt a lifestyle of moderation or ‘The Middle Way’. Like Aristotle, his version of the good life wasn’t one of overindulgence or eschewing creature comforts but one of embracing the space in-between. Happiness for Buddha was an inside job generated by the practice of non-attachment, acceptance and perspective. In other words, misery isn’t a by-product of whatever first-world problems you’ve hashtagged on your Instagram account; it’s because you need to sort your priorities out.
Confucius (551–479 BC), Chinese teacher, editor, politician, philosopher and rumoured student of Lao Tzu, was one of the East’s first self-help gurus. Ever the rebel, he believed we all possessed the power of transformation and bucked the idea of lineage bestowing ‘nobility’. His mission statement, The Doctrine of the Mean, can be summed up as follows: happiness (or ‘virtue’) is developed in one’s character, not one’s circumstances. It fulfils a broader social function or jen – a feeling of concern for the well-being of others. Most of all, it never overdoes it. Steady Eddies, rejoice!
Collectively, our happiness-theorising forefathers taught us to do our best, to do right by others and to enjoy the present while keeping an eye on the future – to be satisfied. Simple, right? Maybe not. Somewhere along the way, we confused doing our best with not doing enough, maintaining inner calm with ticking over. Happiness became a moving target, with increased expectations jeopardising our aim. Is happiness a state of being? A state of mind? A bag full of cash, 10 wives and an S-Class Mercedes? In a world beset by multiple choice, finding that centre-point is no mean feat. So how do we decide what will make us happy? Glad you asked.
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Also by the author: The Happy Closet
‘A well-written guide to balancing how you look and how you feel,’ Irish Times Magazine
‘A brilliant book delivered with O’Connor’s trademark wit,’ Sunday Business Post Magazine
‘This book will transmogrify your wardrobe and your mind to a Zen, clutter-free zone,’ Irish Tatler
About the Author
Annmarie is an award-winning fashion writer, stylist and author of The Happy Closet – a self-help guide to balancing well-being and being well-dressed.
Her editorial and styling work has appeared in publications such as the Irish Examiner, Sunday Times Style magazine, The Irish Times, Irish Tatler, Image and The Gloss. She has also styled for London Fashion Week, The Voice of Ireland and clients like LVMH, Harvey Nichols, Brown Thomas and BT2. On air, she is a regular contributor to The Dave Fanning Show, The Ryan Tubridy Show; TV3′s Xposé and RTÉ’s Today show. She is editor of the Louis Vuitton City Guide to Dublin 2012. She is a self-styled inexpert expert on the subject of mindfulness.