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The Pursuit of Happiness


Jinan Bastaki

*Update* Disclaimer: This article does not deal with clinical depression. While some of the steps can be used as prevention, clinical depression is a mental illness that should be addressed by a trained professional. Any general references to depression in the article refer to depression in regular parlance, and not as a medical term. I was recently asked to give a talk entitled, T he Pursuit of Happiness. I had a lot to say about the topic, and unf ortunately was not able to deliver all of it. T his topic is really important in general, but especially in this day and age where we f ind many people suf f ering f rom depression/melancholy at some point in their lif e. What is Happiness? Most Americans are f amiliar with the phrase lif e, liberty and the pursuit of happinessrights enshrined in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. But in order to talk about the pursuit of happiness, we need to know what happiness is. It turns out that happiness is a little hard to def ine. We all know what it is, and we know when we are happy, but it is dif f icult to put into words because it is so experiential. It is one of these things that is an end in and of itself ; people want things in order to be happy, whether it is wealth, health, or a dream we want to achieve. Wikipedias def inition states that Happiness is a mental or emotional state of well-being characterized by positive or pleasant emotions ranging f rom contentment to intense joy. Psychologist Ed Diener, author of Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, describes it as a combination of lif e satisf action and having more positive emotions than negative emotions. Most of us would think that we would be happy if we were able to obtain some lif e achievement, or that our happiness would disappear if we lost our home in a f ire (God f orbid). But psychologists have f ound that af ter some period of adjustment, we actually go back to our previous level of happiness, no matter what happens to us. So happiness is a state that we can cultivate that does not have to be permanently af f ected by the things that happen to us externally. T he more we work on our happiness, the easier it is to come back to it af ter times of hardship.

We all know people with very little wealth who appear to be happy, and others who are very wealthy but are very unhappy. While some of it can be genetic, tweaking these external variables does not necessarily permanently change the level of happiness. T heref ore, there must be something else. In an article by the Mayo Clinic, they stated that only 10 percent or so of the variation in peoples reports of happiness can be explained by dif f erences in their circumstances. It appears that the bulk of what determines happiness is due to personality and more importantly thoughts and behaviors that can be changed. So we all know that happiness is not simply a giddy f eeling that we get now and then. It is something more. Happiness can be described as a general state of contentment, or redha. Saad bin Abi Waqqas, radi Allahu `anhu (may God be pleased with him), who is one of the ten Companions promised paradise, said to his son: If you ask f or wealth, then ask f or contentment to accompany it. If contentment does not accompany it, then no money will satisf y you. T he Pursuit of Happiness T here are two types happinesses: in Jannah (Paradise) and in this world. Jannah is a happiness that we pursue, it is the permanent happiness, where there is no f ear or grief . And inshaAllah (God willing), everything that we do should be geared f or that: the pleasure of God and Jannah. But in this world, I do not believe in the pursuit of happiness. T hat is not because I do not believe in happiness in this world. It is quite the opposite. I just do not believe in pursuing it, because when we say we are pursuing happiness, we are implying that happiness is something that is outside of us and that it is out of reach, which is why we have to pursue it. Yet Allah, subhanahu wa taala (exalted is He), has made happiness in this world easy. He made it something inside of us that is not necessarily dependent on the external. So we can pursue Jannah while being happy in this world, or we can pursue it while being depressedwhich one would you rather have? Which one will enable you to be more productive? Question: Do you think Allah (swt) wants you to be happy in this world? T he answer to this question matters greatly. If you think that you are meant to suf f er, then that will become a self -f ulf illing prophecy. Every bad thing that happens becomes a moment of Of course I knew this would happen, I have such terrible luck, as opposed to something we learn f rom and grow as a result of . If we think Allah (swt) wants us to suf f er, then we will only f ind closeness to Him in pain. T his does not mean that we cannot f ind Allah (swt) in moments of pain, but we should be able to go to Allah both in times of ease and in hardship. So does He want us to be happy in this world? Happiness in the Life of a Believer My argument is that Allah (swt) wants us to be happy in this worldespecially when happiness is def ined as a general state of contentment. Why do I say this? Our example, the Prophet , was a balanced man. His general state was one of contentment. He was described as daaim al-bushra, meaning he was always optimistic and happy. He was serious when times called f or it, and that was to encourage ref lection and accountability, and prevent f rivolity. Moreover, we are taught that the best thing to do is make others happy. T he Prophet said that the most beloved deed to Allah (swt) af ter the obligatory acts of worship is to bring joy to a f ellow Muslim. He also said that what necessitates f orgiveness f rom Allah (swt) is bringing joy to your brother (Tabarani). Finally he taught us that the only reward f or bringing joy to an entire household is Paradise (Tabarani). When the Prophet f ound out that a childs pet bird had died, he went to play with him to make him f orgot about his sorrow. If we are all busy making others happy, who is lef t to be sad?

When people accepted Islam, they would be overjoyed because they f elt that Allah (swt) chose them. T here is a closeness that comes with that. When we study Allahs Names, we f ind that many of them are geared towards giving us some sort of comf ort, such as as-Salaam (the Source of Peace), al-Jabbar (He who mends what is broken), al-Lateef (the Subtle and Kind), al-Fattah (the Opener) and others. Allah (swt) comf orts the Prophet when he was under distress. We are told we will f ind rest in the remembrance of Allah (swt). T he Quran is f illed with words of hope, which I will expand upon later. T he Prophet taught us that the af f air of the believer is amazing because everything is good f or himwhen he sees good, he thanks God, and when he f aces hardship, he is patient. If lif e was meant to be depressing, why would Allah (swt) give us the antidotes to sadness, despair and f ear? How to Be Happy I started going through studies and articles written on happiness and what makes people happy. I f ound that the results were a combination of things, and most articles mentioned gratef ulness, optimism, purpose, love, and doing good. All of these help us to reach a general state of happiness or contentment. Interestingly, all of these are virtues taught to us in the Quran and by the Prophet :

1. Gratef ulness: We are told in the Quran: And if you should count the f avors of Allah, you could not enumerate them. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Mercif ul (Quran, 18:18)[Unknown A1] . Taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture, we can realize that all of the blessings that we have can have a prof ound ef f ect on our well-being. Instead of f ocusing on what we do not have, or the negative things that happened to us in a day, we should f ocus on what we have been given. 2. Optimism: Every notice how some people just have good energy? T hey tend to be optimistic people that can see the good in situations where others only see negatives. Allah (swt) teaches us how to have this outlook, when He tells us I am at my servants opinion of Me, (Bukhari). If you think well of Allah, that is what you will f ind. So Allah is telling us that it is up to us. If we want to imagine a grumpy god that wants wickedness f or the world, well, it is our own f ault that that is what we see. But Allah (swt) encourages us to think well of HimHe is teaching us the Islamic outlook on lif e. He teaches us to be optimistic even in times of distress, when He says, So verily, with the hardship, there is relief . Verily, with the hardship, there is relief , (Quran, 94:5-6). Every hardship comes with at least two relief s, so f ocus on the good that Allah (swt) gave you to help overcome the bad. Moreover, we are also reminded But perhaps you hate a thing and it is good f or you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad f or you. And Allah Knows, while you know not, (Quran, 2:216). Being optimistic means not seeing simply the hardship, but what could be behind the hardship in terms of lessons, and seeing that it could be a good thing. 3. Purpose: What is Islam about if not about def ining our purpose? A recent UCLA study showed that the happiness that comes f rom having a deep sense of meaning and purpose in lif e can contribute to f avorable gene-expression prof iles. When you know what you are pursuing, it makes everything worth it. So think: who do you want to be? We all know we were sent worship God, but we also know that besides the basics that we are all required to do (such as prayers, f asting, alms-giving etc), we each are unique in the way that we seek closeness to Him. It could be through starting up an ethical business, dedicating our lives to be an amazing teacher, striving to be a wonderf ul parent, devoting our time to issues of social justiceanything. T he best thing is, when you intend something, you will have it if you sincerely work f or it even if you never get there. T he Prophet tells us about two people, one whom God has bestowed with wealth and knowledge, so he is able to spend that wealth in benef icial ways; and another who only has knowledge, but wishes that he had wealth in order to be able to do more. T he Prophet said that these people are rewarded exactly the same because we are rewarded in accordance to our intention. Allah (swt) is teaching us to dream big and to work hard, but to have a heart that is at rest because we know the result is with Him. 4. Love: We all have people that love us. And it is important to f oster good relationships with our f amily

and f riends. We are reminded again and again to have a good relationship with our neighbors, our close f riends and our f amily. It is not only a duty, but also something that enriches our lif e. And even if we think we do not have anyone that loves us, then we should remember that Allah (swt) loves us. And we should not f or a moment let shaytan (the Devil) tell us that this is not true. Why would Allah (swt) allow you to read these words of encouragement if He did not want what is best f or you? And why would He want what is best f or you if He does not love you? Sadness is Normal Sometimes T his all might seem too easy. What about when things make us sad? Didnt Allah (swt) say that He would test those He loves the most? So how can reconcile these things? First, it is natural to have our down moments. T he Prophet was sad when he lost his son Ibrahim. He suf f ered many hardships as well. When Aisha (ra) asked him whether the Battle of Uhud was the most dif f icult thing he went through, he said that it was the abuse he was subjected to at Taif that was the worst. But notice that he would point out incidents or events that were hard, as opposed to saying, My entire lif e is hard or T his was something I never got over. Second, there is a dif f erence between being tested externally and being def eated internally. Yes, Allah (swt) tests those He loves. But He only tests us with what we can bear. T his means that the stronger we are internally, the more hardship we are able to bear. Allah (swt) does not aim to destroy you but to build you. If you are at peace, while you will be shaken by hardships, you will not be broken, like the prophets and the righteous. Your worldview will enable you to see the hardship f or what it is: temporary. So when things go wrong, let yourself be sad as opposed to bottling things up. T he Prophet wept f or his son. T hings bothered him sometimes. But that was not his general state. He did not dwell on his hardships. Rather, his healthy internal state allowed him return to his def ault, which was a state of gratef ulness and optimism. If you ever f eel down or distressed, remember this du`a (supplication): Allahumma inni audhu bika minal-hammi wal- uzni wal-ajazi wal-kasli wal-bukhli wal-jubni wa alad-dayni wa ghalabatir-rijal. O Allh, I take refuge in You from anxiety and sorrow, weakness and laziness, miserliness and cowardice, the burden of debts and from being overpowered by men. [Bukhari] Practical T ips When we talk about happiness, it is easy to talk about the intangibles, but what are concrete ways to get there? I have compiled a list that I hope will help, InshaAllah: 1. Realize that happiness is truly from within. Let go of holding onto to stress and f ear, and realize that Allah (swt) gave you the power to af f ect your internal state. Allah says He is what we think of Him, so we need to live in accordance with that opinion and internalize that good opinion of Him. 2. Build hope and faith in Allah, and develop your relationship with Him: this is your asset and will get you through things. Study His Names, f ocus on connecting to Him through your prayers, ref lect over the Quran and have secret good deeds that no one knows about but Him. 3. Develop yourself: No two days in the day of a Muslim should be the same. Learn new things. Read. Cultivate the sound heart. Work on your interpersonal skills. T he Prophet said that wisdom is the lost property of the believer, so we should be seeking wisdom in all its f orms. 4. Smile: Its a sunnah (tradition of the Prophet ) as we know, and psychological studies have shown

that smiling can increase your happiness levels and lif t your spirits. Fun study: Wayne State University scientists in Detroit concluded that those athletes who smiled more in their pictures lived on average seven years longer than those who did not. 5. Do good: T here are countless ahadeeth (sayings of the Prophet) that encourage us to do good f or others, without expecting anything f or ourselves. T he Prophet gave his time in addition to his wealth to people who needed it. Allah (swt) says in the Quran, Indeed, those who have believed and done righteous deeds the Most Mercif ul will appoint f or them af f ection (Quran, 19:96). Meaning Allah (swt) will show His love f or you! Moreover, one of Allahs Names is ash-Shakoor; He appreciates and gives back even more than you put in when you do good! A paper by Dr. Suzanne Richards and colleagues at the University of Exeter Medical School, Exeter, UK, f ound that volunteering is associated with lower depression, increased well-being, and a 22 percent reduction in the risk of dying. Karen Reivich, Ph.D., a research associate in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania f ound that happiness is also f eeling a connection to something larger than yourself . When people are in service to something bigger, they describe their lives as f illed with meaning. Its not the smiley f ace, but when its all over, you realize youd do it again. 6. Express gratitude: It is one thing to be gratef ul, and another thing to express it. Allah (swt) tells us If you are gratef ul, I will surely increase you [in f avor], (Quran, 14:7). You will be given more materiallybut also spiritually. T here will be barakah, which means increase. For example, you have an hour to do things but f ind that you can do so much. You have little money but it is always enough f or you. And gratitude is not just in expressing it to God. Remember that the Prophet said, whoever has not thanked people has not thanked God (Abu Dawud). It applies with both the big things (showing your parents how much appreciate them) and with the small (simply saying thank you when the barista gives you your cof f ee). T his short clip shows an experiment conducted on the link between expressing gratitude and peoples happiness, and is well worth the watch. 7. Good friends: T he Prophet taught us that A good f riend and a bad f riend are like a perf umeseller and a blacksmith: T he perf ume-seller might give you some perf ume as a gif t, or you might buy some f rom him, or at least you might smell its f ragrance. As f or the blacksmith, he might singe your clothes, and at the very least you will breathe in the f umes of the f urnace, (Bukhari). We know that we can be inf luenced by the people around us to varying degrees. Researchers show that people who surround themselves with other happy people are more likely to be happy. Happiness is contagious, and so are good habits. Be with people who can remind you, who can encourage you and who care f or their own state that they inf luence you in a good way without even speaking. 8. Develop a relationship with your family: I put this as a separate point to the above because I f eel that it requires extra f ocus. T he Prophet tells us, T he best of you are those who are best to their f amilies, (Tirmidhi). What we go home to also inf luences us. Many of us live with our parents, and we have heard countless talks about the obedience to parents. But our relationship with our parents is so much more than obedience, and characterizing the relationship in that way makes it rigid and dry. In the Quran we are told to accompany them in [this] world with appropriate kindness and f ollow the way of those who turn back to Me [in repentance] (31:15). T he word is used is saahibhuma, which is f rom the root that gives us the word saahib: companion. Some of us may have dif f icult relationships with our parents, and so this part is extra hard if we f eel disconnected f rom them. But remember, we are rewarded f or our ef f orts. Find something in common between you. Maybe your mother enjoys reading and your f ather loves a certain sport. You can try to f ind those little things that will transf orm your relationship. 9. Take a break: Do you like knitting? Maybe take time out and watch a documentary. Play martial arts. Do some yoga. Go out f or cof f ee. Chill in the park. T his is not haraam and is not considered a waste of time if we are being balanced (and as long as the thing itself is not haraam ). Handhala (ra), one of the companions of the Prophet , went running to the Prophet because he f eared he was a hypocrite f or being more spiritual when he was with him rather than when he was in his f amily. But the Prophet told him, T here is time f or this and a time f or that, (Muslim).

10. Sleep well: Remember that your body has a right over you. When a man came to the Prophet saying that he prayed all night long, the Prophet reminded him that his body and his f amily had rights over him. In the Quran, we are taught that Allah (swt) made your sleep [a means f or] rest, And made the night as clothing, And made the day f or livelihood (78:9-11). T his really does not need a study, but studies have shown that bad sleep is detrimental to your mood, and of course, makes it hard to wake up in the morning. A University of Michigan study showed that just getting an extra hour of sleep at night has more of an ef f ect on daily happiness than making $60,000 more in annual income! 11. Eat well: Allah (swt) says: O children of Adam, take your adornment at every masjid, and eat and drink, but be not excessive. Indeed, He likes not those who commit excess (Quran, 7:31). While studies are not conclusive, there are links between what we eat and how it af f ects our mood in the long-term. It is most likely linked to overall health, but see this article and this one f or happy f oods. 12. Be fit: T he Prophet was f it and barely had a belly into his 60s. T he sahaba, the Companions (ra) played sports. Allah (swt) created us in a certain way: you use your body well, and it will help you when you are old. A Duke University study suggested that moderate aerobic exercise has a longer and more lasting ef f ect on mood than medication alone f or people with depression. A Canadian study f ound that being physically active was associated with 85 percent higher odds of being happy and people who changed f rom being inactive to active were more likely to report f eeling happy two and f our years later. 13. Have discipline: Jaber bin Abdullah (ra), one of the companions, was carrying a piece of meat. Umar saw him and said, What is this Jaber? To which Jaber replied I desired some meat so I bought it. Umar looked at him and said And do you buy whatever you desire? T his last one might seem counter-intuitive. Getting whatever we desire should make us happy, right? Not according to a research study published in the Journal of Personality, which f ound that exerting self -control can make you happier both in the long-term and in the moment. Disciplined people are able to avoid situations of temptation, and theref ore avoid situations in which their goals or morals would conf lict. It is not simply about being in a situation and preventing yourself f rom acting on your lust, but it is, as Islam teaches, avoiding situations where there is a higher risk of desires taking control over you. T he research concluded that these people are good managers, and experienced f ewer negative emotions as a result. Moreover, being disciplined with our goals or even a little to-do list helps instill a sense of achievement, which in turn makes us more productive and happy.