The Hunt for Happiness


Life’s temptations haven’t changed a wit since Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Christ in the desert, or Seneca in hedonistic Rome. We are lured by any proffer of sensual pleasure, exert any effort to gain the trappings of power and control, and suffer no insult to our own vain pride. Succeed in these, we believe, and we’ve found paradise.

Yet four of five people say they’re unhappy with their very purpose in life. 

After more than two million interviews during six years, this was a finding of an international Gallup-Healthways study released in September.

Only 18 percent reported liking what they do each day. Put another way, most of us have little reason to get out of bed in the morning.

That’s a sad thought to entertain as we set our clocks forward tonight in anticipation of the happy season of spring. But the idea that happiness is “out there” to be hunted down and possessed like the holy grail stretches back to Eden:

And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die. For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

Essayist Robert Barron, in reflecting on the biblical account of Christ’s three temptations in the desert, says we face these same classic enticements today:

  • We place sensual pleasure at the center of our concerns, with eating, drinking and sex paramount in our lives. Christ felt the full weight of fasting for forty days in preparation for his public ministry.
  • Second, power over others is of the essence, from political dictators to control freaks within families and friendships. This was the temptation Christ faced when he was offered rule over the kingdoms of the world.
  • Finally, we seek to enhance our reputation, be admired and esteemed. This was the temptation Christ fought when he was taken to the parapet of the Temple, the place of supreme visibility.

Christ’s advice for the good life? “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble, and you will find rest for yourselves.”

A leading light of the pagan Roman Empire, who happened to be a contemporary of Christ, also had a lot to say about the lusty appetites we humans have for pleasure, power and pride. His name was Lucius Annaeus Seneca. As a college freshman, I spent a year translating this Stoic philosopher’s writings from the Latin.

A waste of my time?

Not to The New Yorker magazine, which last month ran a long piece on Stoicism:

Seneca consistently maintains that the key to a virtuous life is freedom from passion. Virtue, in turn, is necessary for happiness and also sufficient to produce it. The tradition placed great emphasis on austerity and self-mastery.

Tim Ferris, author of The Four-hour Work Week, advises corporate executives to apply Stoicism as a tonic for their entrepreneurial endeavors because it teaches how to be steadfast, strong and in control—of yourself.

As Seneca wrote:

Show me a man who isn’t a slave. One is a slave to sex, another to money, another to ambition; all are slaves to hope or fear. And there is no state of slavery more disgraceful than one that is self-imposed.

He added, "It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor."

Seneca laid the foundation of our understanding of free will. It is in our power to become virtuous, he said, because we decide—through reason, not emotion—how to live.

He hammers home the core note of Stoicism—that virtue alone creates happiness, and nothing else even makes a contribution.

And in saying that only virtue is good, he defines the good as something that benefits others as well as us. In fact, Seneca devotes an entire treatise to the idea:

No one can lead a happy life if he thinks only of himself and turns everything to his own purposes. You should live for the other person if you wish to live for yourself.

No, freedom is not found in unrestricted autonomy nor does the happy life blossom in unfettered indulgence in pleasure, power and pride.

It’s closer to what Mark Twain had in mind when he said, “Live so that when we die even the undertaker will be sorry.”

In my next post, “Number One and Number Two.”


Buy a signed copy of my new book, Fat Guy in a Fat Boat, by emailing

Or order copies from Amazon:

An e-book version is available for Kindle, and soon for iPads and Nook.

And … today ... I am signing copies of the book during the annual meeting of the Cat Boat Association in Mystic, CT.


Also available is my e-book, A Light from Within, about the small moments of our lives that seem commonplace until they are examined under a creative lens.

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