Looking For Happiness (Part 2)

Written by: Dr. S. M. Kazem Mesbah Moosavi

Published on: September 17th, 2019

Theories of Happiness

The discussion of the theories of happiness is of utter importance in the psychology of happiness, since without having a clear understanding of this topic it is impossible to arrive at appropriate approaches to achieve it. This article will focus on four theories of happiness developed by leading psychologists. The theories which will be presented are Hedonism, Desire, Objective List, and Authentic Happiness. The later section of the article will focus on the Islamic perspective and how it relates to the psychological theories of happiness.

Click here for Part 1 | 3 | 4

1. The Hedonism Theory

Hedonism or the Theory of Pleasure puts pleasure as the central and principal basis of happiness. Thus everything is evaluated based on the amount of pleasure derived from it. This theory is rooted in the ideas of Jeremy Bentham, a leading theorist in Anglo-American philosophy of law and one of the founders of utilitarianism. He believed that only one issue is significant in life and that is the amount of pleasure. Anything leading to a higher level of pleasure is more valuable to one’s life.(1)

According to the Hedonism Theory, a life of happiness is a life with maximal pleasure and minimal pain. A happy individual is someone who always smiles and feels plenty of pleasure and very little grief. Those who consistently feel sorrow and grief, and in whose faces we see affliction are considered to be unfortunate. The main problem of this theory, according to Martin Seligman and Ed Royzman, distinguished contemporary psychologists, is that hedonism cannot account for the successful and thriving people whose lives have been afflicted with pain. Seligman mentions Wittgenstein as an example; who after having been through many hardships and difficulties during the final moments of his life he said: “tell them it was wonderful!” (2) Seligman concludes that if pleasure were the basis of happiness many successful and prosperous lives would be looked at as miserable. However, upon reviewing history, we encounter numerous people who have had happy and prosperous lives despite much pain and hardship. Therefore, we cannot evaluate happiness or affliction based on the amount of time spent in joyous or painful moments.


2. The Desire Theory

The Desire Theory defines happiness as being dependent on “attaining desires and achieving wishes”. Griffin,

in his research in 1986, presents happiness as achieving wishes without any consideration for the amount of pain or pleasure involved.(3) According to Seligman and Royzman, the difference between this theory and the hedonism theory lies in that the latter sees happiness as pleasure overcoming pain, regardless of whether this is an individual’s desire or not. However, the Desire Theory bases happiness on the extent of achieving one’s wishes in life. For instance, an Indian yogi who has chosen to spend a period of self-discipline in order to achieve his goals, and prefers the endurance of hardships, suffering, and hunger to a life of pleasure is happier than a person whose life is immersed in a pleasure that is not his real desire.

To better understand the Desire Theory, one may consider the life of a person who is addicted to substance abuse. An addicted individual who enjoys substance abuse and is continually increasing the amount of time spent under the influence, may be a happy individual based on the Hedonism Theory, but according to the Desire Theory he is nowhere close to happiness, as his wish and desire may be against his condition. Perhaps he wishes to have a productive, valuable, and fruitful life, like other successful and distinguished members of society. His desire might be to be a good spouse, a role-model for his children, and/or a productive member of society instead of being embarrassed and humiliated because of his addiction.


3. The Objective List Theory

The Objective List Theory defines happiness as objective, dependent on material belongings, opportunities and conditions; free of human feelings and desires.(4) This theory identifies happiness as exclusive to a life that possesses a list of real values in this world. This list includes wealth, higher education, a good job, good friends, health, a prosperous life, beauty, knowledge, intelligence and wisdom. According to this theory, the subjective world doesn’t play a major role in happiness. As an example, we can consider the thousands of abandoned children in the streets of Angolan, Luanda’s capital city, who spend their nights on sandy shores and search garbage piles for food during their days. Their immediate needs are met when roaming the streets as gangs and through casual sexual encounters, and though they may have a good time, can they be considered blissful and happy?

According to this theory, they cannot be judged as happy, since they lack all of the values in the Objective List, all the values that a happy person would include.(5) According to this theory, happiness is not only dependent on the subjective world or human feelings, but depends on the possession of the items on the happiness list. According to psychologists such as Seligman and Royzman, this theory has a major shortcoming; one cannot disregard individual feelings, desires and wishes in evaluating happiness. As opposed to the subjective theories of happiness that overlook the objective aspects of this world, the Objective List Theory ignores the role of subjective world and human wishes and desires, and hence, both theories are problematic.(6 )


4. The Authentic Happiness Theory

Having criticized the earlier three theories, Seligman proposes a forth theory as a solution: the Authentic Happiness Theory. In defining his theory, Seligman mentions three distinct types of happiness: a pleasant life, a good life, and a meaningful life.  The first type is based on the first and second theories (pleasure and desire) and the third is based on the Objective List Theory. In addition to pointing out the subjectivity of the first and second theories, and the objectivity of the third type, he states that happiness has a more complete phase: a full life, containing all three criteria of happiness, this phase is called Authentic Happiness. A more comprehensive version of this theory will be discussed in future articles.


5. Islamic perspective

In my opinion, Islam is critical of the first three theories of happiness and the fourth theory is not flawless. Hereby, the first three theories will be reviewed from a religious point of view.

5-1) Analysis of the First and Second Theories

As criticized by numerous psychologists and intellectuals, the first and second theories of “pleasure” and cannot define “happiness” according to Islam, since sometimes worthless  activities  can  become  a source of pleasure or even a goal for some individuals. Some examples of this is an addict who finds pleasure in substance abuse, or someone who takes joy in watching inhumane, despicable pornographic images and in doing so, wastes valuable moments of their life. Moments which could be spent for the growth and development of their mind and intellect gaining scientific, spiritual, and financial growth. According to Islam, such humans are not happy, although in their own limited and small viewpoint they might see their lives as full of happiness. There is no doubt that humans are in the search of joy, of pleasure from the right and valuable foundation.

Human existence is full of various wishes, and   tendencies. Among different people, wishes have diverse importance and ranks, only some of these desires have universal popularity and value; these include a tendency towards goodness and moral virtues and a tendency to gain knowledge and higher educational standing. Attaining such desires could account for achieving some aspects of happiness. So, one cannot fully accept the second theory that bases happiness only on attaining desires.  Seligman criticizes the second theory as follows: “If someone’s only wish were to count the fallen leaves on the ground or to listen to western or country music,” would granting these wishes play a role in human happiness?

He then suggests that in defining happiness, we limit the types of desires and define happiness as granting those wishes that help us attain real and valuable goals. As a result, fulfilling any desire and wish cannot be a basis for happiness, since some desires can be contrary to human happiness.

In order to evaluate and critique the first and second theories of happiness from the point of view of Islam, it is sufficient to note this verse from God’s words, “You may dislike a thing that in fact, is to your advantage and is beneficial for you, or you may like some-thing [pleasure or desire] that is actually harmful to you.” (Soura Albaqara, 216)

A clear example of this can be found in physical and mental health issues. A person who suffers from diabetes and high cholesterol, but enjoys eating fat, sugar and high- cholesterol foods and does not eliminate them from his diet since his desire is to have such treats. However, is attaining these desires, pleasures, and sweetness a means to happiness, or precisely a path to misfortune, death, or loss of a hand, leg, or an eye due to diabetes, or paralysis due to a heart attack? In a narration by Imam Ali (PBUH), it is stated:

“So many a short-lived pleasures that are followed by a lingering sorrow.” (Osool-e-Kafi, Vol.2, Hadith 451)

Sometimes people enjoy certain things and want to attain them, but in actuality and in the long-term they may lead to misfortune and harm. Also in spiritual affairs, there are numerous examples of how short-lived pleasures and a desire for worthless things can play a seriously destructive role in an individual’s success.

Essentially, many successes and achievements of virtues are combined with difficulties and challenges, and hardship is embedded in comfort. The Holy Quran says, “With any hardship comes ease.” (Soura Alinsherah, 6)As the famous saying goes, “no pain, no gain.”

In short, as psychologists such as Seligman and Royzman have pointed out, theories of “pleasure” and “desire” cannot address the concept of happiness well enough.

 5-2) Analysis of the Third Theory

 The problem with the Objective List Theory is that it has suggested a list of material and earthly possessions with total disregard for the inner world. According to this theory, money, social positions, and a prosperous life are the basis of happiness. However, according to Islam, this theory is not realistic. As mentioned in the previous article, an average amount of money may be required for happiness but it is not sufficient. Without having the basic necessities of an average life, happiness may be hindered and certainly, the spiritual life would also become susceptible. A famous narration of the Imams states, “he who has no world and is not able to secure himself financially, will not have an afterlife,” because in such people, erring and wrong-doing is more likely when trying to obtain the necessities of life. The famous saying “a hungry stomach doesn’t have faith and religion” is an interpretation of that narration. It is precisely due to such necessities that Islam states it as the duty of all people in a society to help those in need and assist them financially. Based on this premise, Quran states: that those in need are partners in wealth with the more prosperous people. (Al-Ma’arej, 24-25)

 In summary, Islam in no way denies the role of financial security in the feeling of happiness, in some instances it clearly mentions the role of material opportunities in human happiness; “an element of happiness is having a large and vast house.” Additionally, in some narrations, having a worthy and faithful spouse is stated as one of the greatest essentials of happiness, as is having good children. Thus, Islam does not reject the role of objective points, but is very critical of a theory that identifies money as the fundamental key to happiness. The Objective List Theory of happiness has two major problems:

I) The quantity of money and wealth a person possesses cannot be used to determine their richness or poverty. An American researcher in a paper titled “Who is rich?” asks the question of whether $1000, $10,000, or $1,000,000 is determinant of richness. To answer this question, he says that richness does not depend on the amount of wealth, but rather on the state of mind. He states that some people are utterly poor despite owning hundreds of millions of dollars, and are always bothered by feeling poor. On the contrary, there are those who have limited financial opportunities, but their mind never feels needy.

 II) As mentioned in the previous article, considering the two elements of “adaptation” and “comparison”, an increase in the amount of money and wealth cannot lead to a feeling of richness and prosperity. People tend to adapt to a new increased income and the “neutral” and “baseline” points of their life become distorted resulting in increased expenses and elevated expectations. As expenses and expectations increase, the feelings of need and deprivation also gain strength. Hence Islamic moral advisors always insist that increasing material possessions and belongings cannot compensate for the void in humans; diminishing belongings and weakening material tendencies are what take the mind to a state of fulfillment and contentment.

 The truth is that we can never be in possession of all the goods in this world, as we can never own all the world’s beauties. So we must transform our perspective to enjoy what we have and not be distressed by what we lack or lose. The Holy Quran teaches the believers to reach a level of balance and exaltation so that no loss would dismay them and no gain would enthuse and excite them. An individual educated by Islam is not merely an impassive person devoid of happiness and sorrow, but a strong mountain whose balance is undisturbed by a simple breeze in spring or by life’s heavy storms.


6. Conclusion

In modern psychology, there are four theories of happiness.

  1. Hedonism theory, which puts pleasure at the center of happiness.
  2. The desire theory, in which happiness is dependent on achieving desires and wishes, regardless of whether those desires are valuable or whether people take pleasure in achieving those desires.
  3. The objective list theory, which defines happiness as dependent on having a series of objective possessions such as money, fame, beauty, etc.
  4. The authentic theory, which defines happiness as a function of a Full Life.

As mentioned above, Islam is critical of the three psychological theories. “Happiness” is more complex than “pleasure”, “desire”, and possession of items on an “objective list”. Islam is not alone in criticizing these three theories; some modern psychologists such as Seligman and Royzman also offer a critique of these theories and suggest a fourth theory of happiness called Authentic Happiness Theory, which will be analyzed in later articles.

Click here for Part 1 | 3 | 4


  1. http://en.wikipedia.org (psychological hedo-nism). Also see: Bentham, J (1978). The Principles of Morals and Legislation. Buffalo: Prometheus.
  2. Seligman, Martin E.P. and Royzman Ed. “Happiness: The three Traditional Theories,” in Authentic Happiness Newsletter. pp1-2.
  3. Griffin, J. (1986). Well-being: Its meaning, measurement, and moral importance. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press.
  4.  Kahneman, D. (1999). Objective Happiness. In D. Kahneman, E. Diener, N Schwarz (Eds.), Well Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology (pp 3-25) New York: Russell Sage. 5)Seligman, (2003), p3. ibid 


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