The Tragedy Of The Pursuit Of Happiness

I do not recall a time in my own life when watching the news or simply listening to the inhumanity and insensitivity of others would bring me to tears.

3 minute read

By Bankole Johnson


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In three decades of practice as a psychiatrist, I never thought I would be looking up the meaning of “happiness”. Nevertheless, I reached out to several dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary, which ascribes happiness to a condition of possessing good luck or fortune in life or in a particular affair. Or contentment or pleasure in one’s situation or being successful. In short, every modern definition of happiness you turn to nowadays is laden with the connotation of success, usually a financial success. Taken to its conclusion, do we all have an inalienable right to be lucky, fortunate, or have a lot of money? Are all of us as Americans guaranteed all of that as a right? So, if we do not possess that, does that not immediately imply, by definition, that we are unhappy. Indeed, this problem of definition of “happiness” is compounded by the fact that its opposite, that is being unhappy, is only really defined as being the opposite of being happy.

You might now begin to wonder why this column devoted to promoting mental wellness is vexed by defining “happiness”. Simply, because it should, arguably, be a goal of optimizing mental wellness.

Moreover, almost the entire field of modern psychiatry and psychology has completely ignored any approach or method to approximate to what it would mean to be truly happy. Indeed, those specialties in traditional form would eschew such an attempt and relegate such thoughts to an unscientific process akin to shamanism.

If we all have been mostly lied to by the modern definition of happiness, especially in our country, which would doom the majority to unhappiness, has anyone actually tried to get this right?

Let’s journey back over 2,000 years to the time of Socrates (469 – 399 BC). Socrates is credited with being the philosopher who did the fundamental work on “happiness” and was noted to have faced his own death cheerfully having been sentenced to drink hemlock (a poison) for “corrupting the youth”. So, way back then, all this really was taken as a life and death struggle, just as it is today.

I shall condense, and perhaps oversimplify, the teachings of Socrates here to illustrate my point pertaining to mental wellness. The tenements of Socrates’ concept of happiness relate to three main domains: Euthydemus; The Symposium, and perhaps most famous of all, The Republic.

Euthydemus acknowledges that happiness is a common desire but can only be obtained by “unconditional good” and is intrinsic, not extrinsic. That is, striving to be the best one can be is a core component of being happy. Extrinsic fortune is neither good or bad; just related to how it is used. In terms of mental wellness, this concept would relate to teaching proportionality and balance.

In The Symposium, the principle concept is driven by Eros, the god of love and desire. But this is not just sexual desire but a force for goodness and bring together our male and female parts in each individual. Thus, whilst sexual pleasure can be gratifying, it is the unity of purpose that creates beauty and the feeling of true happiness. In terms of mental wellness, it relates to internal development towards an education consisting of seeking internal harmony or some would say peace of mind that can be brought about by life-coaching, meditation, and other holistic techniques. To go further, fusing all of these concepts with our technology that can increase awareness such as hyperbaric oxygen treatment is the unity that drives a desire towards wholesomeness, which is at the core of being happy.

In the Republic, Plato’s epiphany, which I have had on my shelf for over 40 years, this complex tome seems to boil down to understanding that harmony is essential to health. Whilst in that text the reference is to “psychic harmony”, this, I propose relates to bringing the entire body into a healthy balance to reduce frustration, stress, and anxiety. If you have been following my interpretation of this text in our modern world, it means that our mind and body cannot be healthy if not in balance or if parts of it are in conflict with the other. To pursue this further, in a modern approach to mental wellness this means that there needs to be an emphasis on physical health, even optimizing beauty, with the goal of achieving greater emotional intelligence. Indeed, the philosopher Epicurus writing centuries after Socrates goes further to describe happiness as not being the simple absence of pain. Happiness due to the absence of pain is fleeting, dependent, and relative, and known as positive happiness; in contrast, negative happiness would be a state of nondependent or nonquantifiable pleasure, which some would say is akin to nirvana. Basically, with no introspection or growth there can be no true happiness. As a case in point, taking mind-altering drugs cannot bring true happiness, as it is “relative” and quantifiable, with the opposite sensation of the “crash” on stopping drug use, which thrown the mind and body off balance.

So, I ask again, are we all condemned to the “pursuit of happiness” in its raw form, which sounds ultimately frustrating and unappealing? Indeed, is this the real tragedy of our modern world that we feel an emptiness and crave or yearn to be happy and fret because it never seems to happen? In other words, is this the insatiable monster that can leave us tired, frustrated, unfulfilled, and just not ready for “one more thing” to stress us out? Surely, if you have been following my arguments here, you will detect that I do not think it has to be so, and there is a way to change the narrative to result in a different outcome.

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Now, what does all this mean for the promotion of mental wellness and our work at Privée Clinics? Fundamentally, it means that our approach is to try and find everyone who comes to see us some “happiness” and that requires a complete understanding from both the physical and mental standpoint. It means that all our work points towards “growing” each individual through personal knowledge, teaching, and optimization. Finally, it means that at its core, our work is integrative, and a union between health, wellness, and beauty in all its forms. For those who come to Privée Clinics, it means that the individual will need to be an active and engaged participant to get the full and wholesome benefit of everything on offer. In my new book, Six Rings (, I take up some of these concepts through allegorical stories following practitioner-client interactions and experiences. If you have been following these stories, you would have learned that the central character, Bastian, mentions three intrinsic “gifts” essential for happiness. First, he remarks on the need to practice calming the mind in the last 10 min of every hour. Those 10 minutes at the end of every hour is your “gift” to yourself, to focus and center yourself. Since most people find this difficult to do, the mental exercise that is suggested by Bastian is to try and listen to your own heartbeat. Since this ability was lost to us as babies, it is the effort of focus that takes us to the place of inner peace and empties the mind. Second, he extolls the virtues of gratitude, and using each day to build a bountiful store of this “gift”, and third, the “gift” of being able to accept unconditional love (not simply give it) but to be able to appreciate that for in all its different forms. It is not the extrinsic act of being loved that is important but the intrinsic “gift” of being able to accept and appreciate it.

So, the next time someone asks you – Do you feel happy? Or, are you happy? You know exactly what to say!



About Professor Dr. Bankole Johnson

Professor Bankole A. Johnson is a licensed physician and board-certified psychiatrist in the United States. Professor Johnson graduated in Medicine from Glasgow University in 1982, and trained in Psychiatry at the Royal London, Maudsley, and Bethlem Royal Hospitals. In addition to his medical degree, he obtained a Master of Philosophy degree for his neurobiological research at the University of London and conducted studies in neuropsychopharmacology for his doctoral thesis on the Medical Research Council unit at Oxford University. In 2004, Professor Johnson earned his Doctor of Science degree in Medicine from Glasgow University, the highest degree that can be granted in science by a British university.

Johnson’s primary area of research expertise is on ion channels, neuropsychopharmacology, molecular genetics, mathematics, neuroimaging, and medications for treating addictions. His clinical expertise is in the fields of addiction, forensics, and disability assessment. He holds several U.S. and international patents in pharmacogenetics.

Previously, Johnson was the Dr. Irving J. Taylor Professor and Chairman of Psychiatry, Professor of Anatomy and Neurobiology, Professor of Medicine and Professor of Pharmacology; as well as the head of the Brain Science Consortium Unit at the University of Maryland. He has also been an Alumni Professor and Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia. Additionally, Johnson served on the Council of the National Institute on Drug Addiction from 2004 to 2007 and was part of its External Advisory Board for many years. He was also on the editorial board of The American Journal of Psychiatry and has over 200 publications himself. 


By Bankole Johnson

Prof. Dr. Bankole Johnson brings his extensive knowledge in psychiatry, molecular genetics, forensics, addiction, and computational mathematics to bear.

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