The origins of happiness research?

It seems that happiness research, which I wrote about recently, has been going on for a very long time.   I discovered this while blog browsing late yesterday.  At the excellent new arts group blog Sarsaparilla  I came across a reference to an anecdote at theatre critic Alison Croggon’s blog (now abandoned in favour of one called Theatre Notes):

Some years ago I interviewed Leo McKern for a newspaper. He was very pissed off about being interviewed. He therefore pretended to be deaf. It was the most difficult interview I have ever conducted. It improved only after he fixed me with a gimlet eye and demanded to know what books Samuel Johnson had written, in full expectation that I had never heard of Samuel Johnson. I was able to say “Rasselas”, and he was so surprised that his hearing came back: the only miracle cure I have ever witnessed.

I didn’t have a clue that Johnson had written a novella, just the dictionary and lots of essays.   Having some time to kill before  last night’s  State of Origin, I searched and found Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia in full text at Project Gutenberg.   It turns out that it’s effectively an extended essay on the human quest for happiness (and its inherent folly).   I started reading it out of  idle curiosity, and ended up reading the whole thing.   Rasselas is quite an engaging work in a delightfully old-fashioned way.

Rasselas is the  son of the King of Abissinia, and lives in a Shangri La-like place called Happy Valley along with others in line for the throne, while he waits his turn to rule.   Living in Happy Valley, however, doesn’t make Rasselas happy at all, and he escapes in company with his sister, Nekayah, and a philosopher, Imlac, to find the secret of happiness. In case you don’t have time to read the whole thing, I’ve copied some fairly extensive extracts over the fold:



Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow, attend to the history of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.

Rasselas was the fourth son of the mighty Emperor in whose dominions the father of waters begins his course – whose bounty pours down the streams of plenty, and scatters over the world the harvests of Egypt.

According to the custom which has descended from age to age among the monarchs of the torrid zone, Rasselas was confined in a private palace, with the other sons and daughters of Abyssinian royalty, till the order of succession should call him to the throne.

The place which the wisdom or policy of antiquity had destined for the residence of the Abyssinian princes was a spacious valley in the kingdom of Amhara, surrounded on every side by mountains, of which the summits overhang the middle part.   The only passage by which it could be entered was a cavern that passed under a rock, of which it had long been disputed whether it was the work of nature or of human industry.   The outlet of the cavern was concealed by a thick wood, and the mouth which opened into the valley was closed with gates of iron, forged by the artificers of ancient days, so massive that no man, without the help of engines, could open or shut them. …
The valley, wide and fruitful, supplied its inhabitants with all the necessaries of life, and all delights and superfluities were added at the annual visit which the Emperor paid his children, when the iron gate was opened to the sound of music, and during eight days every one that resided in the valley was required to propose whatever might contribute to make seclusion pleasant, to fill up the vacancies of attention, and lessen the tediousness of time.   Every desire was immediately granted.   All the artificers of pleasure were called to gladden the festivity; the musicians exerted the power of harmony, and the dancers showed their activity before the princes, in hopes that they should pass their lives in blissful captivity, to which those only were admitted whose performance was thought able to add novelty to luxury.   Such was the appearance of security and delight which this retirement afforded, that they to whom it was new always desired that it might be perpetual; and as those on whom the iron gate had once closed were never suffered to return, the effect of longer experience could not be known.   Thus every year produced new scenes of delight, and new competitors for imprisonment. …


Here the sons and daughters of Abyssinia lived only to know the soft vicissitudes of pleasure and repose, attended by all that were skilful to delight, and gratified with whatever the senses can enjoy.   They wandered in gardens of fragrance, and slept in the fortresses of security.   Every art was practised to make them pleased with their own condition.   The sages who instructed them told them of nothing but the miseries of public life, and described all beyond the mountains as regions of calamity, where discord was always racing, and where man preyed upon man.   To heighten their opinion of their own felicity, they were daily entertained with songs, the subject of which was the Happy Valley.   Their appetites were excited by frequent enumerations of different enjoyments, and revelry and merriment were the business of every hour, from the dawn of morning to the close of the evening.

These methods were generally successful; few of the princes had ever wished to enlarge their bounds, but passed their lives in full conviction that they had all within their reach that art or nature could bestow, and pitied those whom nature had excluded from this seat of tranquillity as the sport of chance and the slaves of misery.

Thus they rose in the morning and lay down at night, pleased with each other and with themselves, all but Rasselas, who, in the twenty-sixth year of his age, began to withdraw himself from the pastimes and assemblies, and to delight in solitary walks and silent meditation.   He often sat before tables covered with luxury, and forgot to taste the dainties that were placed before him; he rose abruptly in the midst of the song, and hastily retired beyond the sound of music.   His attendants observed the change, and endeavoured to renew his love of pleasure.   He neglected their officiousness, repulsed their invitations, and spent day after day on the banks of rivulets sheltered with trees, where he sometimes listened to the birds in the branches, sometimes observed the fish playing in the streams, and anon cast his eyes upon the pastures and mountains filled with animals, of which some were biting the herbage, and some sleeping among the bushes.   The singularity of his humour made him much observed.   One of the sages, in whose conversation he had formerly delighted, followed him secretly, in hope of discovering the cause of his disquiet.   Rasselas, who knew not that any one was near him, having for some time fixed his eyes upon the goats that were browsing among the rocks, began to compare their condition with his own.

“What,” said he, “makes the difference between man and all the rest of the animal creation?   Every beast that strays beside me has the same corporal necessities with myself: he is hungry, and crops the grass; he is thirsty, and drinks the stream; his thirst and hunger are appeased; he is satisfied, and sleeps; he rises again, and is hungry; he is again fed, and is at rest.   I am hungry and thirsty, like him, but when thirst and hunger cease, I am not at rest.   I am, like him, pained with want, but am not, like him, satisfied with fulness.   The intermediate hours are tedious and gloomy; I long again to be hungry that I may again quicken the attention.   The birds peck the berries or the corn, and fly away to the groves, where they sit in seeming happiness on the branches, and waste their lives in tuning one unvaried series of sounds.   I likewise can call the lutist and the singer; but the sounds that pleased me yesterday weary me to-day, and will grow yet more wearisome to-morrow.   I can discover in me no power of perception which is not glutted with its proper pleasure, yet I do not feel myself delighted.   Man surely has some latent sense for which this place affords no gratification; or he has some desire distinct from sense, which must be satisfied before he can be happy.” …

Eventually Rasselas contrives to escape from Happy Valley with the help of the philosopher Imlac, and he and his sister Princess Nekayah go in search of the secret of true  happiness.   I’ll reproduce just  a couple  of the  many chapters, which each explore a putative source of happiness but find it wanting:


Rasselas applauded the design, and appeared next day with a splendid retinue at the Court of the Bassa.   He was soon distinguished for his magnificence, and admitted, as a Prince whose curiosity had brought him from distant countries, to an intimacy with the great officers and frequent conversation with the Bassa himself.

He was at first inclined to believe that the man must be pleased with his own condition whom all approached with reverence and heard with obedience, and who had the power to extend his edicts to a whole kingdom.   “There can be no pleasure,” said he, “equal to that of feeling at once the joy of thousands all made happy by wise administration.   Yet, since by the law of subordination this sublime delight can be in one nation but the lot of one, it is surely reasonable to think that there is some satisfaction more popular and accessible, and that millions can hardly be subjected to the will of a single man, only to fill his particular breast with incommunicable content.”

These thoughts were often in his mind, and he found no solution of the difficulty.   But as presents and civilities gained him more familiarity, he found that almost every man who stood high in his employment hated all the rest and was hated by them, and that their lives were a continual succession of plots and detections, stratagems and escapes, faction and treachery.   Many of those who surrounded the Bassa were sent only to watch and report his conduct: every tongue was muttering censure, and every eye was searching for a fault.

At last the letters of revocation arrived: the Bassa was carried in chains to Constantinople, and his name was mentioned no more.

“What are we now to think of the prerogatives of power?” said Rasselas to his sister: “is it without efficacy to good, or is the subordinate degree only dangerous, and the supreme safe and glorious?   Is the Sultan the only happy man in his dominions, or is the Sultan himself subject to the torments of suspicion and the dread of enemies?”

In a short time the second Bassa was deposed.   The Sultan that had advanced him was murdered by the Janissaries, and his successor had other views or different favourites.


“Disorders of intellect,” answered Imlac, “happen much more often than superficial observers will easily believe.   Perhaps if we speak with rigorous exactness, no human mind is in its right state.   There is no man whose imagination does not sometimes predominate over his reason who can regulate his attention wholly by his will, and whose ideas will come and go at his command.   No man will be found in whose mind airy notions do not sometimes tyrannise, and force him to hope or fear beyond the limits of sober probability.   All power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity, but while this power is such as we can control and repress it is not visible to others, nor considered as any deprivation of the mental faculties; it is not pronounced madness but when it becomes ungovernable, and apparently influences speech or action.

“To indulge the power of fiction and send imagination out upon the wing is often the sport of those who delight too much in silent speculation.   When we are alone we are not always busy; the labour of excogitation is too violent to last long; the ardour of inquiry will sometimes give way to idleness or satiety.   He who has nothing external that can divert him must find pleasure in his own thoughts, and must conceive himself what he is not; for who is pleased with what he is?   He then expatiates in boundless futurity, and culls from all imaginable conditions that which for the present moment he should most desire, amuses his desires with impossible enjoyments, and confers upon his pride unattainable dominion.   The mind dances from scene to scene, unites all pleasures in all combinations, and riots in delights which Nature and fortune, with all their bounty, cannot bestow.

“In time some particular train of ideas fixes the attention; all other intellectual gratifications are rejected; the mind, in weariness or leisure, recurs constantly to the favourite conception, and feasts on the luscious falsehood whenever she is offended with the bitterness of truth.   By degrees the reign of fancy is confirmed; she grows first imperious and in time despotic.   Then fictions begin to operate as realities, false opinions fasten upon the mind, and life passes in dreams of rapture or of anguish.

“This, sir, is one of the dangers of solitude, which the hermit has confessed not always to promote goodness, and the astronomer’s misery has proved to be not always propitious to wisdom.”

“I will no more,” said the favourite, “imagine myself the Queen of Abyssinia.   I have often spent the hours which the Princess gave to my own disposal in adjusting ceremonies and regulating the Court; I have repressed the pride of the powerful and granted the petitions of the poor; I have built new palaces in more happy situations, planted groves upon the tops of mountains, and have exulted in the beneficence of royalty, till, when the Princess entered, I had almost forgotten to bow down before her.”

“And I,” said the Princess, “will not allow myself any more to play the shepherdess in my waking dreams.   I have often soothed my thoughts with the quiet and innocence of pastoral employments, till I have in my chamber heard the winds whistle and the sheep bleat; sometimes freed the lamb entangled in the thicket, and sometimes with my crook encountered the wolf.   I have a dress like that of the village maids, which I put on to help my imagination, and a pipe on which I play softly, and suppose myself followed by my flocks.”

“I will confess,” said the Prince, “an indulgence of fantastic delight more dangerous than yours.   I have frequently endeavoured to imagine the possibility of a perfect government, by which all wrong should be restrained, all vice reformed, and all the subjects preserved in tranquillity and innocence.   This thought produced innumerable schemes of reformation, and dictated many useful regulations and salutary effects.   This has been the sport and sometimes the labour of my solitude, and I start when I think with how little anguish I once supposed the death of my father and my brothers.”

“Such,” said Imlac, “are the effects of visionary schemes.   When we first form them, we know them to be absurd, but familiarise them by degrees, and in time lose sight of their folly.”


The evening was now far past, and they rose to return home.   As they walked along the banks of the Nile, delighted with the beams of the moon quivering on the water, they saw at a small distance an old man whom the Prince had often heard in the assembly of the sages.   “Yonder,” said he, “is one whose years have calmed his passions, but not clouded his reason.   Let us close the disquisitions of the night by inquiring what are his sentiments of his own state, that we may know whether youth alone is to struggle with vexation, and whether any better hope remains for the latter part of life.”

Here the sage approached and saluted them.   They invited him to join their walk, and prattled awhile as acquaintance that had unexpectedly met one another.   The old man was cheerful and talkative, and the way seemed short in his company.   He was pleased to find himself not disregarded, accompanied them to their house, and, at the Prince’s request, entered with them.   They placed him in the seat of honour, and set wine and conserves before him.

“Sir,” said the Princess, “an evening walk must give to a man of learning like you pleasures which ignorance and youth can hardly conceive.   You know the qualities and the causes of all that you behold – the laws by which the river flows, the periods in which the planets perform their revolutions.   Everything must supply you with contemplation, and renew the consciousness of your own dignity.”

“Lady,” answered he, “let the gay and the vigorous expect pleasure in their excursions: it is enough that age can attain ease.   To me the world has lost its novelty.   I look round, and see what I remember to have seen in happier days.   I rest against a tree, and consider that in the same shade I once disputed upon the annual overflow of the Nile with a friend who is now silent in the grave.   I cast my eyes upwards, fix them on the changing moon, and think with pain on the vicissitudes of life.   I have ceased to take much delight in physical truth; for what have I to do with those things which I am soon to leave?”

“You may at least recreate yourself,” said Imlac, “with the recollection of an honourable and useful life, and enjoy the praise which all agree to give you.”

“Praise,” said the sage with a sigh, “is to an old man an empty sound.   I have neither mother to be delighted with the reputation of her son, nor wife to partake the honours of her husband.   I have outlived my friends and my rivals.   Nothing is now of much importance; for I cannot extend my interest beyond myself.   Youth is delighted with applause, because it is considered as the earnest of some future good, and because the prospect of life is far extended; but to me, who am now declining to decrepitude, there is little to be feared from the malevolence of men, and yet less to be hoped from their affection or esteem.   Something they may yet take away, but they can give me nothing.   Riches would now be useless, and high employment would be pain.   My retrospect of life recalls to my view many opportunities of good neglected, much time squandered upon trifles, and more lost in idleness and vacancy.   I leave many great designs unattempted, and many great attempts unfinished.   My mind is burdened with no heavy crime, and therefore I compose myself to tranquillity; endeavour to abstract my thoughts from hopes and cares which, though reason knows them to be vain, still try to keep their old possession of the heart; expect, with serene humility, that hour which nature cannot long delay, and hope to possess in a better state that happiness which here I could not find, and that virtue which here I have not attained.”

He arose and went away, leaving his audience not much elated with the hope of long life.   The Prince consoled himself with remarking that it was not reasonable to be disappointed by this account; for age had never been considered as the season of felicity, and if it was possible to be easy in decline and weakness, it was likely that the days of vigour and alacrity might be happy; that the noon of life might be bright, if the evening could be calm.

The Princess suspected that age was querulous and malignant, and delighted to repress the expectations of those who had newly entered the world.   She had seen the possessors of estates look with envy on their heirs, and known many who enjoyed pleasures no longer than they could confine it to themselves.

Pekuah conjectured that the man was older than he appeared, and was willing to impute his complaints to delirious dejection; or else supposed that he had been unfortunate, and was therefore discontented.   “For nothing,” said she, “is more common than to call our own condition the condition of life.”

Imlac, who had no desire to see them depressed, smiled at the comforts which they could so readily procure to themselves; and remembered that at the same age he was equally confident of unmingled prosperity, and equally fertile of consolatory expedients.   He forbore to force upon them unwelcome knowledge, which time itself would too soon impress.   The Princess and her lady retired; the madness of the astronomer hung upon their minds; and they desired Imlac to enter upon his office, and delay next morning the rising of the sun.

Rasselas doesn’t have any dramatic tension in a modern sense, so I might as well reproduce the concluding chapter as well:


It was now the time of the inundation of the Nile.   A few days after their visit to the catacombs the river began to rise.

They were confined to their house.   The whole region being under water, gave them no invitation to any excursions; and being well supplied with materials for talk, they diverted themselves with comparisons of the different forms of life which they had observed, and with various schemes of happiness which each of them had formed.

Pekuah was never so much charmed with any place as the Convent of St. Anthony, where the Arab restored her to the Princess, and wished only to fill it with pious maidens and to be made prioress of the order.   She was weary of expectation and disgust, and would gladly be fixed in some unvariable state.

The Princess thought that, of all sublunary things, knowledge was the best.   She desired first to learn all sciences, and then proposed to found a college of learned women, in which she would preside, that, by conversing with the old and educating the young, she might divide her time between the acquisition and communication of wisdom, and raise up for the next age models of prudence and patterns of piety.

The Prince desired a little kingdom in which he might administer justice in his own person and see all the parts of government with his own eyes; but he could never fix the limits of his dominion, and was always adding to the number of his subjects.

Imlac and the astronomer were contented to be driven along the stream of life without directing their course to any particular port.

Of those wishes that they had formed they well knew that none could be obtained.   They deliberated awhile what was to be done, and resolved, when the inundation should cease, to return to Abyssinia.


Johnson’s conclusion dovetails rather neatly with my own conclusion about happiness research, which quoted Frank Furedi quoting JS Mill:

Happiness may be a worthwhile objective, yet as the philosopher John Stuart Mill noted it cannot be the direct end of people’s activity. ‘Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so’, observed Mill. He added that the ‘only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life’. As Richard Schoch recently put it, Mill understood that the ‘secret of happiness’ is ‘the paradox that you find it”¦only by searching for something else’. Happiness is the indirect outcome of engaging with others in the pursuit of civic virtues, and attempting to do good.


About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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18 years ago

Well, that’s a consensus then :)

Tony Harris
18 years ago

NSW supporters probably would have got more happiness from reading Rasselas (or practically anything) instead of watching the game.

Like Ken, I think Mill was on the right track. People who look for happiness induced by chemical means should check out the rather different uses of psychoactive substances in Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984.

There is an Australian version of the Gutenberg project which provides online access to things like Brian Penton’s forgotten novel on the early pastoralists and other things that are out of copyright.

18 years ago

I quite like this quote:

“It may sound rather trite or obvious, but it is fundamentally and profoundly true that all beings are urged to happiness–not merely to ordinary, temporary, and (necessarily) limited happiness, but to Ultimate, Perfect, Complete, and Perfect Happiness!” From

Also What To Remember To Be Happy at:

Two other quotes from the same author:

“Happiness is the Conscious Light of the World”

“Happiness is the now-and-forever Mystery that is the Real Heart and the Only Real God of every one”


[…] issues have been aired before on CT: Don Arthur puts a version of objection E; Ken Parish here and here seems in effect to interpret point 5 as a rebuttal of point 8, although I may not have understood […]