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Is it possible to teach happiness?

At Harvard and Yale, there are courses that seek to define the concept of what makes human beings happy. But another question arises: why not study unhappiness and universal unrest?

Estado de Penambuco, en Brasil
A man celebrates during a carnival in Penambuco State, Brazil.MesquitaFMS (Getty Images)
Juan Arias

Yes, it is true that at the prestigious universities of Harvard and Yale, the concept of happiness is now being studied as a new subject, something that is beginning to spread to other universities around the world. In Brazil, for example, several universities are beginning to take an interest in what is called “positive psychology” to unravel the complex concept of happiness.

I ask myself, however, whether it would not be better, at this historical moment, to, instead of happiness, study unhappiness, universal uneasiness, fear of the future, anxiety, and the rise of anti-panic drugs.

It is symptomatic, in fact, that the number of students seeking to study happiness is increasing every day. And perhaps what is happening is that the increase of universal uneasiness — of uncertainty about what the future will hold for our children — is in turn causing people all over the world to seek recipes and teachings for how to be happy.

The fundamental problem is that, while there is a growing interest in the study of happiness, it is increasingly difficult to specify the coordinates of this human dimension, which also includes animals.

And what’s curious is that, while we frantically search for happiness, the emerging field of positive psychology is at the same time delving into the classics of antiquity in search of formulas against unhappiness.

Since the concept of emotional intelligence, which revolutionized the way we relate to others to alleviate our frustrations, there have been many formulas to counteract unhappiness, sometimes at the cost of a false escapism through chemistry.

It is not strange that in such a frantic search, publications on the attempt to define happiness or unhappiness are multiplying. In Brazil, psychiatrist Daniel Martins de Barros has just published Living is better without having to be the best. This shows that happiness does not come — as has always been thought — from being the first, the most intelligent, the richest, the most applauded.

That is why I believe that instead of coming up with new and creative formulas on how to achieve happiness, we should study what makes humans unhappy today. This would be the best way to discover what is, or rather, what is not true happiness.

And it is true that perhaps the best way to reach a possible definition of happiness — which is surely impossible — is to search for what today gives rise to unhappiness and uneasiness.

It has been, in fact, the so-called consumer society, the sanctuary of the worst of capitalism, which has injected into the veins of modernity that uneasiness that prevents up from ever reaching true happiness.

If happiness was once associated with wealth and comfort, with the accumulation of money and objects, with the ambition to possess, today we are beginning to understand — and this is worthy of further study — that the old saying “less is more” is back with a vengeance. And this is the wisdom of the ancient philosophers and schools of spirituality. Indeed, a room cluttered with furniture, however luxurious it may be, does not exude more beauty than the simplicity of the monastic cells of the ancient monks who, stripped of almost everything, were the ones who lived the most in harmony with their environment and were certainly the least unhappy.

I was always impressed, when I studied the Greek and Latin classics, with how they were able, with few words, to embrace a whole philosophy of life that, curiously, is now relevant again in the midst of the era of artificial intelligence, to cite the latest folly invented by Homo Sapiens and which he may one day come to regret.

Latin philosophers coined an expression with only three words that could be today the heart of all university studies: In medio virtus. Virtue, as understood by ancient philosophers, is at the center of happiness. The center is the faithful of balance — it is the equilibrium, the calmness, the contained joy. It is also the silence that fosters creativity.

In my life I have come across people who suffered not because they lacked something, but, on the contrary, because they had everything to spare and wanted more. It is not true that the greatest unrest, the greatest bitterness, is found among the poor, because they, unlike those who have everything to spare and are bored with having so much, know how to draw joy even from the deepest wells of their abandonment.

I am not talking about politics, but about psychology, because politics today insists on rushing more and more towards extremism and thus ends up unbalancing universal coexistence — the equilibrium we need for happiness. Extremists — of any color, any ideology — are triumphing, against all ancestral wisdom. Sanity, calm, justice, moderation, and the fight against injustice are in crisis. Even political elections are won by stridency, extravagance, if not by a return to the old tyrannies, even if sometimes disguised as modernity and novelty.

There is nothing older, more outdated, more discouraging, more maddening, than the noise not of the old cannons of war, but of the subtle disguises of modern happiness.

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