Paradox of happiness

The personalised nature arises from differences in factors contributing to unhappiness

Ali Hassan Bangwar April 21, 2024
The writer is a freelancer based in Kandhkot, Sindh. He can be reached at


Happiness has consistently stood out as the most sought-after human pursuit throughout history. A fundamental instinct, humans inherently seek a joyful life in all their endeavors. From philosophers to sages, from mystics to ordinary people, all have long sought to discover the key to a happy life. However, despite various proposed recipes, methods, and philosophies, the meaning and means of a universally applicable happy life remain as elusive as life itself. Although I previously sought to understand happiness through a multidisciplinary lens in my article ‘Making sense of happiness’, one comes to the realisation that a deeper understanding of the genesis of unhappiness is essential to genuinely comprehending its complexities. For without venturing into the intricacies of unhappiness, our understanding of happiness remains incomplete, much like trying to grasp a puzzle with missing pieces.

Far from being an independent variable or a property on its own, happiness is a sensation of serenity and satisfaction that often comes in the absence of what makes us unhappy. In other words, it is the absence of what interferes with our peace, passion, and state of serenity — an uninterrupted sense of feeling or engagement with oneself, or an animate or inanimate environment. However, by birth, we are neither happy nor sad; it’s the societal constructs of our thoughts and practices that shape our emotional states. Similar to the ineffable nature of love, the depth and dimensions of happiness are often experienced more profoundly than they can be articulated, perhaps due to the limitations of language.

Therefore, identifying the factors that diminish our joy rather than what brings us happiness could help alleviate unhappiness, if not eradicate it entirely. For that, it is important to recognise that perpetual happiness is unattainable. If it were otherwise, we might never truly experience happiness. For we taste happiness only after experiencing the distaste of sorrow.

As suggested by Fyodor Dostoevsky, “The greatest happiness is to know the source of unhappiness.” Without understanding the roots of unhappiness, genuine happiness remains elusive. Unhappiness is a multifaceted experience that arises from a deep-seated sense of discontentment — a feeling of emptiness or inadequacy. This discontent can take many forms, including anxiety, depression, alienation, grudges, anger, frustration, sorrow, or exasperation, and is often triggered by a complex interplay of external factors, internal conflicts, or a combination of the two. However, the causative factors in fewer instances of disconnect are too hard to undo but to be sailed with patience.

Whether it’s a response to challenging life events, unmet expectations, unexpressed emotions, unsaid words, unresolved inner conflicts, or a combination of all, unhappiness can be a profound experience that affects individuals in unique, contextual, and personal ways. The personalised nature arises from differences in factors contributing to unhappiness. Had it been otherwise, a single thing would have sufficed to make everyone happy. As the sources of disturbance or unease vary from person to person, so do the means to address them.

This means that the meaning of happiness or unhappiness is a personalised experience and a contextual concept. These contextual meanings of happiness embody a personal, individualised experience of self-satisfaction characterised mainly by the absence of any disturbing stimulus. This is why only knowing the differential sources of happiness won’t serve us as much as getting conscious of what brings unhappiness.

In two ways, we can make ourselves happy: by undoing what makes us unhappy and by doing what masks irritants in our lives. Though we mainly achieve happiness by momentarily escaping the irritant through masking it, we can achieve a relatively sustainable sense of contentment by identifying and outdoing the sources of disturbance. That is, getting insight into the concept, pattern, and manifestations of unhappiness would help us invite contentment. As happiness isn’t an end in itself to be pursued but something contained in carefully cultivated means that we engage ourselves in, identifying and undoing what disturbs the most is where the road to contentment begins.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 21st, 2024.

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