Sat | Apr 4, 2020

Ethon Lowe | If wishes were horses ...

Published:Friday | January 11, 2019 | 12:00 AM

Every year, we are inundated by family and friends wishing us a merry Christmas and a happy new year. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride; or so the saying goes.

Unfortunately, wishes for your happiness, some well intentioned (not all), are, yes, simply wishes, and wishing hardly accomplishes anything, including riding horses. Fortunately, most of us are not beggars.

I am reminded of the hauntingly beautiful Shirley Horn's song (1992), Here's to Life: "No complaints, and no regrets, I still believe in chasing dreams and placing bets, but I have learn't that all you give is all you get, so give it all you got. I had my share, I drank my fill, and even though I am satisfied, I am hungry still to see what's down another road beyond the hill. Who knows what tomorrow brings, as long as I am still in the game, I want to play for laughs, for life, for loves. So here's to life and every joy it brings."

Is happiness all there is to life? Never before has the promise of happiness been so great and the reality so disappointing. Fuelled by consumerism, advertising and the media, we are encouraged to think that happiness is within our grasp. We have more food, better housing and, above all, better health. Why is happiness so elusive in today's world?

Happiness is better equated with satisfaction rather than pleasure. The pursuit of pleasure leads us on a never-ending, hedonistic treadmill that eventually brings misery. While you might find pleasure by happenstance winning the lottery, possessing the right genes (our genes account for roughly half of our predisposition to be happy), satisfaction can arise only by the conscious decision to do something. It is your own action for which you may take responsibility and credit.




Frequent repetition of pleasures, like sex, or eating the same snacks, do not lead to happiness. Wonderfulness wanes with repetition. Pleasure is temporary; happiness (satisfaction) is a more enduring condition.

John Stuart Mill, the 19th-century philosopher, had this insight: "It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied."

If the choices between finding contentment by eating and whatever the human equivalent of lying around in mud is, or by using our more human capacities of thought, speech and intelligence, the latter form of happiness is preferable. (Pigs and fools, of course, might disagree.)

But this does reflect the fact that there are different types of happiness: 'higher' capacities of human beings and 'lower' capacities that we share with animals, such as eating food, sex, and running around in the fields.

And, what kind of happiness is worth having?

Consider people with raging libidos baffled by people who are satisfied without having sex for months, and football fanatics puzzled by people who don't enjoy the game. Our own particular dispositions, personal preferences, and also living meaningful, fulfilling lives, would seem more important than the intellectual activity arising from our universal human nature (ways of thinking, feeling and acting, characteristic to humans).

If we worry too much about being happy, we can't be happy. Better to get on and live the kind of life we think is worthwhile and take what happiness comes from it. The key is to discover what leads to your happiness, and do that. But nothing comes with guarantees. Uninterrupted happiness is beyond us. It is hard to be happy when you experience tragedies in life. All you can do is to have the kind of attitude and outlook to get through those hard times.

Instead of depending on what WILL make us happy (for example, a planned holiday), be thankful for what you already have rather than being resentful for what you haven't got.

Our desire for happiness is like a craving that we think can only be satisfied by feeding it more. Yet, it is the craving that is the problem.

- Ethon Lowe is a medical doctor. Email feedback to and