Looking for Happiness (Part 3)

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

Published on: September 18th, 2019

Click here for Part 1 | 2 | 4

Happiness According to Psychology and Islam

In the previous article, we examined and criticized three psychological theories of happiness: the Hedonism theory, the Desire theory, and the Objective List theory. The present article will examine a fourth theory of happiness, the “Authentic Happiness Theory”. Its insufficiency will become apparent by analyzing the positive and negative aspects of this theory. As an alternative a proposed Islamic theory titled “Comprehensive Authentic Happiness” will be introduced.


1) Theory of Authentic Happiness

Two prominent psychologists of our time, Seligman and Royzman, who have criticized the three theories of “Hedonism”, “Desire” and “Objective List” have proposed a fourth theory entitled “Theory of Authentic Happiness”. They believe that life consists of three distinct categories: pleasant life, good life, and meaningful life. While pleasant life is based on the “Hedonism theory”, good life and meaningful life are based on the “Desire” and “Objective list” theories respectively. However, according to these two psychologists, happiness is a complicated matter since life has a higher level: “full life”. Full life is that aspect of life that encompasses all three criteria of happiness contained in the three above-mentioned theories. In other words, authentic happiness refers to a life with abundant pleasure, achievement of desires, and fulfillment of material opportunities as listed in Objective List Theory. According to this theory, attaining the Objective List Theory items is extremely important. As a result, those who lack material merits are not considered to be truly happy. Accordingly, a happy individual must have a large house, a great car, an excellent job, and beauty and fame, in addition to the fulfillment of his/her desires and wishes. Otherwise such a person is considered unfortunate.


2) Problems associated with the Theory of Authentic Happiness

 2.1) Although the happiness that is described by the fourth theory (Theory of Authentic Happiness) is desirable, it is more idealistic than realistic. There is no doubt that humans are always in quest for joy and fulfillment of their wishes and dreams. However, is this type of life possible and practical, and are there real examples to demonstrate it? The answer is certainly negative, as life is a blend of sweet and bitter moments, ups and downs, and will never stay completely pleasing and ideal. Surely, every spring is followed by a fall, and every blossom withers. Imam Ali (PBUH) in the beautiful book Nahj-ol-Balagheh says, “This world is a house entwined amidst misfortunes and problems and adversities.”

The Holy Quran also refers to life in this world as an arduous and difficult path. Thus, it can be concluded that the meaning of happiness as inspired by the fourth theory, although desirable, is greatly different from the reality of life.


2.2) Another problem associated with the fourth theory is that it puts a greater emphasis on material advantages where wealth, jobs, and social status are considered elements of happiness; whereas happiness is more subjective in nature than objective. When material advantages and the subjective perspective are weighed against one another, subjective elements such as feelings and personal viewpoint weigh more heavily in determining happiness. People’s perspectives as well as their expectations of themselves and the world are also important determinants of feeling happy. Unless perspectives are corrected and optimism, simplicity and inner contentment are achieved, the presence of material advantages cannot be considered determinants of happiness. Material advantages alone, without correct understanding and perspective don’t play a role in happiness. This is why some of the modern prominent psychologists emphasize subjective wellbeing (SWB) when evaluating happiness, and stress that the role of the subjective world should never be ignored or diminished.

Psychologists such as Diener, Suh, Lucas, and Smith who have discussed SWB in detail in their most recent findings in 1999 (1), state that subjective wellbeing consists of three elements:

a) life satisfaction;

b) positive emotional experiences;

c) lack of negative emotional experiences.

Those who have a high SWB are satisfied with their life and don’t experience negative feelings such as anxiety and sadness. Evaluation of this well-being depends on personal perspectives (2, 3).

Given the importance of the subjective world, it can be concluded that the first three psychological theories of happiness, as well as the fourth theory cannot define happiness. It may also be noted that the fourth theory has a further flaw. In addition to the problems associated with the three previous theories, it is also criticized for being idealistic and unrealistic. Therefore, searching for an alternative theory is warranted. Accordingly, a fifth theory based on the Islamic concept of happiness is discussed.


3) Islam and the Meaning of Happiness

As an introduction to the Islamic theory of happiness, I draw your attention to different degrees and levels of life from the Islamic perspective.

3.1) Degrees of life

Life contains various levels and degrees: plant life, animal life, primitive human life, and purified or exalted human life. Plant life is the most primitive type of life where growth and feelings are limited and no understanding exists. A higher degree of life is animal life. At this level, although limited forms of understanding and feelings exist, wisdom and awareness are lacking. Consequently, choice and responsibility can-not exist. In animal life there is no conscious planning and preparation, animals only eat, sleep and fulfill their sexual instincts without thinking about tomorrow. Since fulfilling desires and obtaining food and water are the main purposes in animal life, animals are constantly trying to meet their needs. In jungles, there are no laws to control animals and to promote peace, calm, friendship and justice. The “law of jungle” governs and stronger creatures win over the weaker ones, consuming them as their prey. Animal life, being devoid of law and order, lacks exaltation and excellence.

Human life is a higher level of life. In addition to having the advantages of the aforementioned levels, human life has its own particular advantages. The majority of these advantages are consequences of the faculties of reasoning and the ability to think; which are the foundations of knowledge, awareness and spiritual evolution. The ability of thought in humans is the main motor of flight and the key power of progress and completion. Lack of wisdom drives humans to the limits of animal life.


3.2) Primitive Life and Exalted Life

Although human life is at a level above animal life, it also contains various sub-levels and degrees. There are various cultural, social, and psychological classifications and categories such as literacy, level of education, and personal predispositions. Similarly there are numerous degrees and levels of humans from a religious perspective. According to Islam life is divided into two levels: primitive and exalted. Those who surrender to instinctive desires and whose standards of good and bad are based solely on their personal wishes, live in a primitive and unpurified level, where material possessions are of utmost importance. Wealth, fame, greed, selfishness and egocentrism are the only determinants of development and decision-making. Within the social life domain, negative competition, jealousy, pride, discrimination, injustice, despotism and war are hallmarks of an unpurified, primitive social life. The personal life domain is affected no less than the social domain. Fear, anxiety, worry, depression, hatred, pessimism, disappointment and feelings of dissatisfaction are characteristics of an unpurified or primitive personal life.

Whereas humans are born in the primitive level of life, staying within that level is similar to staying in childhood. One cannot approach the world while remaining a child. During childhood, problems are easily solved. When a child is upset, a chocolate bar or a doll can make him/her happy again. However, as the child gradually grows up, feelings and desires become more complicated and satisfaction and peace cannot be easily provided. Therefore, in adulthood they will face a lot of personal and social problems, because with growth, instinctive needs and desires also grow and become stronger. Each and every one of their human needs will then require unlimited satisfaction. Since desires are unlimited, humans will be on a “hedonic treadmill” and will always search for an impossible destination to reach in this world. The unquenchable needs of humans will interfere with the wishes and desires of others, causing jealousy, hatred, lies, betrayal, and animosity as well as war and bloodshed. In fact, if we consider and investigate the root causes of destructive wars where innocent adults and children are burnt, killed and maimed, we can single out several factors. The most important factor in these wars is the presence of selfish and unpurified individuals whose animal instincts and desires have led them madly to achieve their incessant desires. Consequently, this has driven their own lives to misery and anxiety while making others’ lives dark and painful.

The Holy Quran calls humans to a purified and exalted life in order to free them from the consequences of a primitive life, and offers them the path to a purified life. Islam proposes a “software” which solves or alleviates human problems and increases contentment and peacefulness. Therefore, even when faced with crisis in their social, financial and other situations humans will feel satisfied and serene. As a result, life is not only devoid of pain and suffering, but is filled with peace, fulfillment and happiness. Accordingly, Islam attempts to transform the subjective world, which is the foundation of attaining a successful material life. Thus, Islam introduces “an exalted or purified life” as the concept of bliss and happiness, and as a higher level of life than a “normal life”.


3.3) Exalted or Comprehensive Life

Authentic happiness according to Islam means achieving a purified or comprehensive life. In the Holy Quran we read on this matter, “those who choose good deeds and believe [in God, His book and His prophets], either man or woman, to those We shall grant a purified life and on Resurrection Day We shall endow them with even more than their actions.” (Nahl: 97) Based on this verse, obtaining authentic happiness depends on faith and moral acts. It is worth recalling that a purified and exalted life is at a level higher than normal and primitive life. In a purified life, due to the transformation of perspective of the world and the spiritual strength that arises from faith in God, life is seen differently and brightly. Spring is eternal; the ever-blooming flower are always fresh and beautiful.

Authentic happiness means attaining a purified or comprehensive life which is filled with meaning and purpose, full of beauty and joy in this world and the eternal world. As the supreme leader of virtue and excellence, Imam Ali (PBUH), says about honourable humans, in Nahj-ol-Balagheh, “They gain both the material goods of this world and the benefits of the eternal world.” We also raise our hands in prayers daily: “Dear God, please bestow on us the benefits of this world and the next, and happiness in both worlds.” Purified life, to which Islam summons people, is coupled with contentment and happiness, filled with eternal hope and peace. In that land of happiness, there will not be sadness or fear as the Holy Quran says, “Those friends of God fear not and have no sadness or sorrow.” Anxiety is also meaningless for those living in the land of happiness, as their support is enormous: God’s friendship. God is their companion and friend, as God says: “We are your companions in this world and the eternal world.”

An exalted and purified life is not only devoid of anxiety, but also far from chaos and moral deviations such as jealousy, spite, and pessimism. Material things such as wealth and fame cannot be the Beloved, since a purified life is filled with a great and sacred love and is a collection of meaningful spiritual human behaviours towards reaching the real Beloved, Allah. The joy and anticipation of seeing the Beloved gives life an indescribable bliss and elation; every-thing in this world is a sign of God and a manifestation of His infinite majesty. Therefore the world is not agonizing and painful; it is filled with beauty and sweetness. In the prayers of Sha’ban we speak as those in love with the Beloved: “Dear God, you have not made me encounter except beauty in this world.”

I am happy in the world since the world is happy because of Him I am in love with the whole world because the whole world is His (Sa’di)


3.4) Leaps in Purified Life Perspectives

Attaining a purified and exalted life causes vast and deep transformations in all aspects of human character and perspective. In this new life the human character becomes progressive and will soar towards infinite horizons of exaltation and growth. Subsequently, the earthly human becomes heavenly and the horizon of his perspective grows beyond the limitations of this material world. Therefore, some matters that may appear pleasing and desirable to normal individuals and can be a cause for pride, conceit, cruelty, war, bloodshed, corruption and threat, will bear little or no importance to heavenly and faithful people living a purified life.

The material value of a house, the model and the year of a car, the cash deposited in bank accounts, or annual income do not account for happiness and bliss. For exalted people, the pleasure of sharing possessions with the poor and the hungry is by far greater than the accumulation and saving of wealth in personal bank accounts. Funding orphanages and seeing the happiness of the orphan children living in them is much more joyful for blessed people than having a Rolls Royce automobile that costs over one million five hundred thousand dollars. In fact, how could the possession of such a car in a time when millions of people die of hunger and poverty be enjoyable! What delight could this car bring to its owner in such conditions!

Those who reach a purified and exalted life look at life from a higher stance. In their eyes, real life is not summarized in animal life and happiness cannot be fulfilled through selfishness and self-centredness. Further, lifespan is not limited to sixty, seventy or a hundred years, but extends and lasts eternally; death is not the endpoint of life, rather the beginning of a transformation from this world to another one. From this perspective, this world is not the destination; it is only a passageway towards the eternal world. Our circumstances in this life are, on one hand similar to those of a student who is constantly learning and flourishing in the “University of Life”. They are similar to the circumstances of an athlete who faces challenges and endures various body-building and self-building exercises in a large gymnasium. However, the student does not get tired of the challenging path of learning, and the athlete does not feel the difficulty of continuing on his path. Life is enjoyable and pleasant, whether the one in quest of knowledge reaches all his answers (which of course can never happen) or whether he constantly remains occupied with study and research continuously facing new challenges. The most important thing for someone in love with knowledge is the ability to do more research and study. As long as there is an opportunity to study and do scientific research, life seems beautiful, pleasing and filled with happiness; misfortune only begins when this opportunity is no longer there.


3.5) Disastrous Life, the Opposite of a Purified and Exalted Life

Just as “happiness” is the opposite of “misfortune”, a “disastrous life” is the opposite of a “purified life”. According to the Holy Quran, those who do not have a “purified life” have no alternative but to lead a “disastrous life”. Staying at the level of a primitive and animal life – which means selfishness, concentration on passions, failure to purify the soul, longing and love for the material world, and running away from God and forgetting Him- provides the backdrop of a disastrous life. The Holy book provides a brief and beautiful account: “those who fail to remember Me shall have a disastrous life.”

Forgetting God prevents the spiritual evolution of human beings and leaves them at a primitive and unpurified level which leads to a disastrous life. Those who don’t recall God and don’t have the privilege of His love and friendship, suffer a meaningless and aimless life devoid of real love, hope and support. Because of a mental status that is suitable only for primitive and unpurified beings, their soul is in pain and anxiety. Their lives cannot generally be regarded as happy, although they may enjoy brief moments of happiness and joy.

Here, a question may arise for the readers: how can the life of someone ignorant of God or a non-believer be described as disastrous when some of them seem to be wealthy, famous, successful and enjoying high social and political status? To answer this question, I call your attention to the fact that misfortune or happiness in life cannot be judged based on appearances; there are many people who are envied by others yet the reality of their life is entirely different. Many times their lives are empty of happiness, and filled with stress, anxiety, and their own special problems. This author has personally met a lot of individuals who, despite their apparent success, fame and notable social status, suffer from inner turmoil and chaos and their dismay at life would be unbelievable for others. The famous saying, “money cannot buy happiness” is a reality in the lives of many wealthy people.

Once someone was talking to this author, and mentioned his luxurious and beautiful house, which stirred envy and awe in everyone. He said, “People were envious of me, but didn’t know about my inner turmoil and were unaware that I could not sleep at night because of severe stress.” The late professor Morteza Motahari also provides an example of this in one of his writings: ‘People were envious of a wealthy individual who was known for his wealth and superior financial means, but when Prof. Motahari asked him how his children were doing, he replied that he didn’t have any children because he saw himself as an “unfortunate” man and didn’t want to pro-create and bring other unfortunate people into this world.’

A disastrous life can manifest in various shapes and forms among people: as the popular saying states: “one has bread but no teeth, another has teeth but no bread.” Whereas a poor person is deprived of delicious foods because of his poverty, a rich person may not be able to consume such foods due to illness. Someone recounted that he knew a wealthy person who lived at the height of prosperity. One day, the rich man invited him to a magnificent feast. During supper, the host didn’t touch any of the foods eating only a bit of half-burnt bread. When the guest asked him the reason, the host replied that because of a variety of illnesses he could not eat or even taste the assorted foods, but could only watch. He continued that during gatherings and parties, he could only envy.

It is important to note that illness and low income are not signs of misfortune. Happiness and misfortune are very complicated matters and cannot be summarized in a simple formula. The reason for narrating the above examples is that appearances in life are not accurate measures for the assessment of happiness or misfortune, because the concepts of happiness, misfortune, and misery are subjective matters. The subjective world plays a more effective role in comparison to the objective world. The importance of the subjective world and its role in happiness, which is inspired by Islamic teachings of 14 centuries ago, is currently re-stated and confirmed by the latest modern psychological theory of subjective will being (SWB).


4) Conclusion

Seligman and Royzman, two of the most prominent psychologists of our time, criticize the happiness theories (hedonism theory, desire theory, and objective list theory), and pro-pose a fourth theory entitled “authentic theory”. In their view, happiness is achievement of “full life” which contains all the benefits of previous theories. However, in the opinion of this author, the fourth theory is more idealistic and is in no way in agreement with the realities of life. In the pretext of apparent shortcomings of the above-noted theories, a fifth theory, the Islamic viewpoint, is proposed.

In contrast to the fourth theory where “full life” is the measure of happiness, religious culture divides life into two levels of “primitive life” and “exalted life”, and proposes “comprehensive life” as the formula for happiness. In this view, although humans are born in primitive stage, staying in it will lead to a disastrous life; just as humans naturally grow to adulthood, their dimensions of spirit and character should transform. One should travel from “self” to “self”, and in other words, migrate from “primitive self” to “exalted self” in order to attain a “purified life”. Subsequently, new horizons open and desires, emotional inclinations and human feelings undergo a fundamental transformation, so that minor issues can no longer trouble or excite his great soul. As the Holy Quran says, “Do not be sad of what you lose, and do not get excited for what is given to you.”

Migration from “self” to “self” and achievement of “exalted” and “purified” life allows humans to control natural currents and view the world and its events from a higher perspective and therefore, they won’t be condemned by inci-dents, and storms of this life cannot transform their lives. “A believer (mo’men) is like a strong mountain which the wind-storms cannot shake.”

Click here for Part 1 | 2 | 4


  1. Suh E, & Oighi S (2002). Subjective wellbeing across cultures, in Psychology and Culture (unit 7, chapter 1, p 1).
  2.  Suh E, & Oighi S (2002). Subjective wellbeing across cultures, in Psychology and Culture (unit 7, chapter 1, p 1-2).
  3. Ed Diener E, Suh E, Oighi S. Recent findings on subjective well being. Indian Journal of Clinical Psychology. March 1997, p 1-2.

©2020. Hoda Magazine. All rights reserved

Privacy / Terms / Disclaimer