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We all want to be happy, but increasingly people seem to be making a serious mistake—confusing true happiness with temporary pleasure.
This kind of transient, pleasurable, purely material happiness can be briefly induced through drugs like alcohol, cocaine and opioids, which trigger the release of neurotransmitters, the chemical brain messengers such as dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. These neurotransmitters temporarily stimulate the reward system of the brain, and thus increase feelings of pleasurable excitement and satisfaction.
Some people, arguing that pain is like an illness which needs to be eliminated, believe that all suffering must be eradicated from life experiences through medical technology and genetic engineering or other means. They would not subscribe to Viktor Frankl’s view that “man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in life.”
Believing that freedom from pain, pleasure, and ultimately material happiness is a goal in itself may lead to its being sought after as a commodity that can be synthesized in clandestine laboratories (amphetamines, LSD, opioids) or factories (alcohol, cannabis), sold for consumption, and hailed as an energizer of the body and mind. We see that exact dynamic at work in our society today.
This kind of temporary, purely physical pleasure can be found in pills, drinks or substances to smoke, inject and serve at parties as a substitute for happiness. It can stimulate brain cells and reward centers, excite emotions, and offer moments of artificial joy and ecstasy. Such a commodity, however it is administered and whatever form it takes, while causing an immediately pleasant effect, usually has the long-term consequence of creating mental deterioration, emotional instability and dysfunctionality, with ultimately tragic results. That temporary, false happiness can cause addiction, diminishment of judgment and cognition, and ultimately the death of the soul or the body. The Baha’i teachings ask us to avoid these substances, and warn us all about the dire effects of their continued use:
Experience hath shown how greatly the renouncing of smoking, of intoxicating drink, and of opium, conduceth to health and vigour, to the expansion and keenness of the mind and to bodily strength. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 149.
As to opium, it is foul and accursed. God protect us from the punishment He inflicteth on the user. According to the explicit Text of [Baha’u’llah’s] Most Holy Book, it is forbidden, and its use is utterly condemned. Reason showeth that smoking opium is a kind of insanity, and experience attesteth that the user is completely cut off from the human kingdom. May God protect all against the perpetration of an act so hideous as this, an act which layeth in ruins the very foundation of what it is to be human, and which causeth the user to be dispossessed for ever and ever. For opium fasteneth on the soul, so that the user’s conscience dieth, his mind is blotted away, his perceptions are eroded. It turneth the living into the dead. – Ibid., pp. 148-149.
The rise of opioid overuse and its destructive consequences is a high price that users pay to boost their mood or to relieve them from pain, unhappiness or despair. In the United States during 2016 alone, nearly 65,000 people died as a result of opioid overdoses and other illicit drugs. As Ladislav Kovac wrote in the European Molecular Biology Organization Reports:
Totally eliminating suffering and blindly chasing pleasure are not paths to happiness … Happiness cannot be a set goal sold as a consumer good. It can only spring up as a by-product of pursuing long-term goals, intermittent with negative and positive emotion.” – EMBO Reports, 2012 Apr. 13(4), pp. 297-302.
In recent decades thousands of books and countless articles and research reports have been published exploring the essence of authentic happiness and myths related to it.
One such myth is that money brings happiness. In fact, there is no scientific and proven positive correlation between money and happiness; multiple research studies have shown that an increase in money and wealth does not produce greater happiness. This is not to deny the significance of income and wealth to fulfill our daily needs and well-being. However, to assume that the accumulation of possessions and money correlate with a higher attainment of joy and happiness is false.
Research studies in recent decades show that amassing wealth and riches leads to a sense of isolation and loneliness, because wealthy people feel they do not need others. According to the Harvard Business Review, wealth is more likely to make people less generous. (Harvard Business Review, Raj Rajhunathan, “Why rich people aren’t as happy as they could be”, June 8, 2016)
This does not mean that rich people can’t be happy or generous; some wealthy people who contribute to worthy causes and help the poor report elevated levels of happiness achieved through their philanthropy. However, a sense of isolation and loneliness, especially among the wealthy, is very common in North America, partly because of a competitive and stressful lifestyle focused on success. Abdu’l-Baha said:
You will find many of the wealthy exposed to dangers and troubled by difficulties, and in their last moments upon the bed of death there remains the regret that they must be separated from that to which their hearts are so attached. – The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 33.
With the advancement of science, technology and prosperity, many expected that human happiness would proportionally increase among the peoples of the world. But research studies suggest otherwise. Today a large number of the inhabitants of rich and affluent countries of the world are not happy. In countries like the United States and Canada depression and suicide are on the rise. – Matt McMillen, Richer Countries have Higher Depression Rates, WebMD, July 26, 2011.
What, then, is spiritual happiness? One way of defining it is a deeper, inner feeling of peace and delight which often comes with a sense of contentment. Its connection with the human soul makes it more enduring and meaningful. Unlike material happiness, it cannot be switched on and off or manipulated at will. Abdu’l-Baha points out that “… spiritual happiness … is the true basis of the life of man because life is created for happiness … This happiness is but the love of God.” – Star of the West, Volume 4, p.
The Baha’i teachings also tell us that we are affected by two opposite sentiments, joy and sorrow:
There is no human being untouched by these two influences; but all the sorrow and the grief that exist come from the world of matter—the spiritual world bestows only the joy. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 110.
Human beings need both material and spiritual happiness in their individual lives, just as humanity needs them in its collective life. But there must be a harmony and coherence between these two kinds of happiness, which we see perfectly blended in this statement of Abdu’l-Baha’s:
… the happiness and greatness, the rank and station, the pleasure and peace, of an individual have never consisted in his personal wealth, but rather in his excellent character, his high resolve, the breadth of his learning, and his ability to solve difficult problems. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 23.