happiness through suffering
President, International Network on Personal Meaning
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada
Happiness, how sweet the sound! It's an inalienable
right, a worthy life goal, and the yearning of every soul, yet oftentimes
it leads to pain and ruin. Like moths flinging themselves into a
flaming fire, many have ruined their lives in hot pursuit of happiness.
consider the recent tearful confession by NBA superstar Kobe Bryant.
Facing a sexual assault charge, he said during a recent press conference:
"I am innocent of the charge. I've made a mistake of adultery! I
am very sorry."
Or, consider the high-flying CEOs who ended
up behind bars. Their lifetime struggle to ascend to the pinnacle
of success only resulted in a terrible fall and a broken dream.
These are not isolated cases. Down through the
ages, many people have found sorrow and pain in chasing after their
dreams of happiness and fulfillment. Their bodies are strewn all
over the roadways to paradise.
Why is happiness so illusive and intractable?
Why is it that after thousands of psychological studies on this
topic, most people still find happiness an empty promise? Why have
progress and prosperity not translated into an increase in happiness
and quality of life? How do we explain this paradox?
One hypothesis is that perhaps most people have
been looking for happiness in all the wrong places, and they don't
really know what it looks like. They might not even recognize it
when happiness lands on their lap like a butterfly.
Is there a perfect picture of happiness?
What does perfect happiness look like? The ecstasy
of winning the World Cup? The bliss of finding true love? The delight
of listening to the glorious music of Beethoven? Indeed, happiness
has many faces, but these only tell part of the story.
A widely accepted view of happiness is that
a perfect picture of happiness would be something like the sum total
of all the following elements.
- Moments of pleasure and enjoyment
- Positive feelings and thoughts
- Absence of negative feelings and thoughts
- Fully healthy and functioning
- Positive relationships
- Positive expectations of the future
- Positive actions
- Success and achievement
- Positive self-concept
- Positive assessment of one's life
- Virtues and strengths
- True love and good sex
- Humor and laughter
- Meaning and purpose
But wait a minute. Is there anyone who fits
the above description? Could anyone find perfect happiness by possessing
an abundance of the above elements? Is it realistic to go through
life on cloud nine?
Unless I am proven wrong by empirical research,
I would say "NO" to all the above questions. My negative answers
are based on the observation of two general patterns:
(1) Life is always a mixture of happiness and
suffering. No one is immune from pain and we all live under the
shadow of suffering and death,
(2) There is often a complex and dynamic relationship
between happiness and suffering. There is a Chinese saying: "the
extreme form of happiness produces sorrow." Just as happiness may
lead to suffering, so does suffering lead to happiness.
In sum, there are no perfect pictures of happiness,
no clear-cut unalloyed joy. A complete understanding of happiness
needs to take into account the above two principles, which have
not received much research attention.
Let us now consider the following scenarios:
- Who can understand the joy of a father, who
after years of grieving, welcomes the return of his prodigal son?
- Who can experience the happiness of a mother,
who hears the first cry of her newborn baby after many hours of
- Who can feel the relief and elation after
unbearable anxiety of waiting for the results of medical tests,
which declare the patient free of a dreaded incurable disease?
- Who can fathom the blessing of a believer
whose faith has been purified and made more fruitful through suffering?
- Who can sense the serenity of someone who
has learned to accept the calamity that has befallen him?
- Who can grasp the rejoicing of Apostle Paul
who was condemned to a dungeon waiting for execution for preaching
are pictures of a very different kind of happiness, born of adversity
and pain. Just as pessimism and optimism can coexist to produce
tragic optimism, so sorrow and joy can mingle to produce happiness.
It seems that life has a way of bestowing the precious gift of joy
to those who suffer; such grace of happiness deserves to be studied
Happiness is therefore like a tapestry of many
colors. What makes a particular tapestry a picture of mature happiness
is not the overabundance of bright colors, but the contrast between
darkness and light, which helps create a sense of hope and joy in
the midst of sorrow.
Different approaches to happiness and suffering
There are different approaches to happiness.
The Western approach focuses on positive feelings, positive actions,
and positive lives. It seeks to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.
Suffering is considered a foreign, hostile intrusion into our happy
existence. However, when suffering can no longer be avoided, then
one tries to trump suffering through positive psychology. The Western
approach works best in a culture of progress, affluence and hope.
The Eastern approach focuses on wisdom, patience,
detachment and serenity. It seeks to develop and master our inner
lives so that we can transcend suffering. The transformation of
suffering is achieved through wisdom and enlightenment. The Eastern
approach works best in a culture of suffering and endurance.
The existential approach focuses on responsibility,
choice and actions in the midst of chaos, absurdity and sufferings.
It seeks to overcome suffering and absurdity through an courageous
act of acceptance. For example, happiness
is pushing a heavy rock uphill over and over again, in spite
of the absurdity and futility of this exercise. This approach works
best in a culture of meaninglessness and despair.
The Christian approach focuses on finding happiness
and life through embracing suffering and death, as exemplified by
Christ on the cross, and taught by Christ in his Sermon on the Mount.
Happiness is not the absence of suffering, but the surrendering
of suffering to God as an offering. This approach works best in
a culture of faith and love.
All four approaches recognize that the pursuit
of happiness necessarily involves coming to terms with the reality
of suffering, although they address the problem of suffering from
very different cultural, religious and philosophical perspectives.
In view of the prevalence and universality of
suffering, it may be more fruitful for both researchers and lay
people to ask: How could we find happiness in and through suffering?
To ask this question is to turn the pursuit of happiness on its
head, because we no longer view suffering as an enemy or obstacle,
but welcome it as an important ally or partner in the enterprise
of happiness. This radically new view of happiness can have significant
implications for psychological research and clinical practice.
Pathways to mature, authentic happiness
Happiness born of adversity is mature, because
it requires not only a certain level of personal maturity and wisdom,
but also the capacity to endure suffering.
Unlike hedonic pleasures, mature happiness
is able to insulate itself from changing circumstances and fluctuating
moods. It may even transcend genetically determined happiness set
Mature happiness is best characterized by serenity,
patience, contentment, and tragic optimism. It embraces both positive
and negative affects and appreciates the bittersweet nature of most
Mature happiness is authentic in the sense that
it is consistent with a person's core values and beliefs and it
reflects one's character and virtues. Such happiness flows from
the authenticity of personhood -- the subject matter of humanistic/existential
In contrast to the dichotomy of positive versus
negative psychology, and the bipolar view of happiness versus suffering,
a mature positive psychology is based on the integration of opposites,
such as tragic optimism and sweet sorrow. The dialectics of duality
represents a promising approach to happiness research.
For those who are tired of chasing after the
illusion of happiness, here are three proven pathways to mature,
(1) Pursuit of
personal meaning. As Viktor Frankl and many other existential
psychologists have pointed out, happiness will elude us when we
make it the aim of our lives, but it comes in through the back door,
when we devote our ourselves to pursuing what is meaningful.
Dr. Frankl has also affirmed that positive meaning
can be found even in the most horrible situations. Affirmation of
meaning provides foundation for both tragic optimism and mature
happiness. I have identified seven areas in which one may find meaning
and happiness: achievement, relationship, intimacy, self-acceptance,
self-transcendence, religion/spirituality, and fair treatment. The
quest for meaning can be costly and risky, but only through this
process can one discover what makes life worth living in the face
of suffering and death.
from the world. Learn to loosen our grip on the world for
a higher calling. Apostle Paul claims that "whatever was to my profit
I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider
everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing
Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4: 7, 8). Because of this detachment,
Paul was able to say: "I have learned the secret of being content
in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether
living in plenty or in want" (Phillippians 4: 12) (The Bible, New
Buddhism also teaches the need of detachment
from desires and the world in order to be free from suffering. Detachment
is achieved through wisdom and enlightenment. Generally, when we
adopt a detached, transcendental view of life, success or failure,
loss or gain will have less an impact on our inner life. We need
to learn how to let go in order to discover the gift of joy. Elsewhere,
I have pointed out the beauty of the transcendental life in trying
of the present. In spite of difficult situations and pains,
we can cultivate a sense of appreciation of the present moments.
For example, Frankl was transported to a sacred realm of beauty
and joy, when he witnessed the beautiful sunset against the bleak
background of Nazi death camp.
Breathing in the cool fresh air of a summer
evening, watching the silent starry sky, listening to the quiet
rhythms of solitude, or enjoying the sweet communion with God in
times of sorrow are just some of the examples of pleasant moments
in the midst of trials and tribulations.
Appreciation implies acceptance of an unpleasant
reality but affirms its potential for good. Appreciation of the
present also includes a sense of gratitude. When we focus on what
we already have rather than what we don't have, and when we count
our blessing rather than problems, the dark night of complaint will
turn into a morning of praise.
The mature positive psychology of happiness
Individuals who have developed these three qualities
of personal meaning, detachment and appreciation may not make it
to the list of 100 most happy people, if we take a snapshot of randomly
selected individuals, with currently available tests of happiness.
However, they are more likely to make the list, if we sample individuals
among the "sufferers" from areas ravaged by poverty, disease, war
and natural disasters; more importantly, we need to develop more
appropriate tests of mature happiness.
Many people have given up on happiness, because
their lives are full of suffering and problems. But do not despair
- mature, authentic happiness can only be found in such troubling
circumstances. It is through suffering that many have found enduring
happiness and become fully alive. It is through weaknesses and losses
that many have discovered their true identify and authenticity.
Stars shine most brightly in the darkest night. That is why mature
positive psychology appeals to the broken hearted, the oppressed
and the disfranchised.