The Pursuit of Happiness: Research and Practice

Note: This is a self-guided project (like a self-guided tour). We will in principle work on our own, possibly with (the help of) other people (if we need a teacher, we probably seek a different path). Or, some of us may have already been on a similar tour, even without realizaing it. This project was originally created as an assignment for Zero Tuition College (ZTC). The description below is a revised version for the Mercer Free School.


Are we happy? If not, why? If yes, does it depend on certain conditions, e.g., materials, status, relationships, or beliefs? If the conditions are no longer satisfied, would we still be happy? Or, are our lives filled with many happy and unhappy moments?

All of us want to be and stay happy rather than unhappy. However, the more we think about happiness, the more we tend to get confused. But the first point we need to recognize is that if happiness depends on some conditions, that cannot sustain. We call this type of happiness superficial (or hedonic) happiness. This includes doing fun things and experiencing sense pleasure. Of course, there is nothing wrong with it; it's just temporary.

Now, if we stumble upon a more robust kind of happiness, which does not depend on conditions, it won't be harmful at all. We might refer to this type of happiness as true/everlasting happiness, deep satisfaction, fulfillment, meaningfulness, inner peace, etc. That is, "true" happiness (or whatever it is called) would apply to us regardless of what we do and be associated with our entire life span. It would apply even to "negative" situations, including when we are injured, sick, sad, depressed, etc. Of course, most of us won't normally consider ourselves happy under these conditions (thus, some people might pursue this project/tour without even reference to the word "happiness"). However, our lives are filled with both positive and negative experiences. True happiness should be applicable to us all the time, even to the point of our deaths.

But would there be such a thing? Well, there are people who answer this question positively. In fact, this is a topic already explored by many people in many fields, including philosophy, psychology, religion, spirituality, etc. So, it would be reasonable to check out available ideas and try them out if any of them would apply to us. We need to do this by ourselves, because only we know what would work for us best. It is good to pick and carefully compare multiple different approaches. We will need to identify practical approaches, i.e., those which integrate practice, not just ideas. In other words, such an approach must describe how the practice would lead to true happiness (there are many "theories" of happiness, but only some of them describe the associated practice).

Once we pick one such approach, we can practice it for a sufficient amount of time, e.g., weeks, months, years, etc. If there is no significant progress after some time, we may want to discuss the situation with others and/or want to try another approach. If we are making progress, that is great. Are we happier in the sense discussed above, i.e. regardless of what we do? What kind of change occurred within us? Would it last into the future? Has our understanding and experience of happiness changed? Is the experience something we want to share with others? How we take advantage of the experience and share it with others would be an integral part of this project/tour. But, again, we need to figure out how to do it by ourselves.

MFS Self-Guided Projects:



Written by Nobo Komagata, Last updated: September 21, 2016