Lev Tolstoy notes at the beginning of Anna Karenina that “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I suppose we might as well replace the word “family” here with “individual human being”. Looking around us, we would find many people unhappy for a thousand and one reasons. But turning to those happy men and women, we would perceive only one truth, that is, happiness comes from doing things one really loves and is engaged in for its own sake. Man is an animal. Both his instincts and his needs of survival direct that he should do something in his lifetime. It is what he does that matters. Does he take up one thing because he appreciates it or just because he wants the material things that it will bring to him? Too often we do something just because it seems profitable or beneficial, or, even worse, just because it is forced upon us. As a result, we may become millionaires or billionaires, pop stars or distinguished statesmen, but we don’t have happiness.
Each person is endowed with some traits and inclinations in his character. In combination with environmental influences these traits and inclinations will shape his interests or preferences. If he is allowed to develop his body and mind in a natural way, to live as his interests best guide him, he will be immune from contradictions within his natural self and, therefore, feel free and joyful about life. If, however, he has to undertake employment which he actually has no mind for, he will feel bored and unhappy¾a revenge of his nature. And if the process lasts long enough, a frustrated or resentful being will most probably be the result. In this respect, I cannot help bringing to mind two of my high school classmates, both of whom are now college students. The first one may rightly be called a born engineer.
From his boyhood on, he has always derived immense pleasure from first dismantling and then assembling again whatever gadgets he may lay his hands on. He was always inventing or innovating on something. Even the sight of his baby sister in his mother’s arms would set him conjuring up a better crib. He chose to enroll in a polytechnic and began to study mechanics. He is very much contented with his life, which he describes as being “advancing on the right path”. The second classmate of mine, a senior majoring in computer science, is not all so cheerful. He is by no means a dull boy, but he does not seem to have any special interest other than music. His parents pushed him into science “for his future”. Unfortunately, three years have passed and he has still not cultivated an appetite for his specialty.
He grumbles about the “tyranny of education” and waits impatiently for the day when he could graduate. I genuinely sympathize with him, since I well remember how I felt when I had to work as a repairman when what really interested me was English and oil painting. Albert Einstein said: “Interest is the best teacher.” I think it is also the best nurse of a happy mind. It is generally claimed¾with good reasons¾that material conditions are essential for happiness. If by material conditions here is meant food and drink and other necessities of life, the claim is evidently justified. If, however, the claim is made in reference to the incessant pursuit for and acquisition of every possible article which makes life comfortable and appeases one’s physical desire, I’d say that the idea will sooner or later prove to be mistaken.
One of man’s natural endowments, that which makes him different from other animals, is that he has access to pleasures derived from many things other than physical ones. A true love of one’s work, and the corresponding satisfaction derived from one’s achievements in it, a tender passion for somebody one truly loves or the feeling of being loved by one’s dearest ones, a commitment to something one feels having a calling for, all these and many more may give one immeasurable happiness in spite of poor material conditions. We may turn to Doctor Norman Bethune to see that. As a human being, Dr. Bethune hated the fascists; as a doctor, he loved both seeing blood and stopping bleeding.
So he abandoned all the physical comforts in which he had lived in Canada, and went first to Spain and then came to China to help with the people who were fighting for national survival against Fascist invaders. He spent in China what were perhaps the hardest years in his life, and yet, before he died a martyr on this land which was so far away from his home country, he told his Chinese comrades in his will that he had been “very happy”. It is certain that there is no such thing as absolute happiness.
Happiness varies from individual to individual and from time to time. One man may be happy as a scholar, another man may be equally happy as a fisherman. In childhood, we are happy to receive from our parents. In youth, we are happy to give and take, to dedicate and to possess. In old age, we will be happy to give without asking for anything in return. But all the time, so long as we do what our soul and mind directs us to do, we will be as happy as the day is long.