What is Happiness?

Enough of weighty questions of global economics, finance and geopolitics. Once in a while, even hard-charging CEOs and statesmen at the Davos global talk-fest need to kick back and relax. So what do they do? Why, change the subject and talk some more, of course. The other night the topic was happiness. What is it, how to find it, and what to do with it if found?

This being Davos, the search for answers was done with style—over fine wines and a generous meal. Nor was there any shortage of specialists to help. These Happyists, as they might be called, ranged from an Indian yogi in saffron robes to a German authority on the human brain and the meaning of consciousness to a glam sex therapist eager to initiate the assembled to the secrets of life-long love. "Yes, love," she shouted out to the Master of Ceremony's introduction. "Not sex!" Unfazed by the momentary letdown that followed, a Turkish cartoonist fired up a PowerPoint evocation of our theme: Happiness Is … a Smile-Button balloon, cut free. A Smile-Button PacMan, gobbling up goodies. A square Smiley-Button emblazoned with the words "Being Different." Is happiness health, wealth, good food, sex or power? Or is it, the cartoonist asked, something more spiritual, an ineffable sense of contentment and well-being?

An American rabbi, Marc Gellman of Temple Beth Torah, leapt into the fray quoting Dostoyevsky. Or was it Tolstoy? "All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is alike in its own way." (It's Dostoyevsky.) "Maybe happiness is not caring whether or not you know," said the rabbi wisely. "Happy people are courageous," he went on, this time citing Pope John Paul II: "Be not afraid." They discover early in life what they are good at—and they keep on doing it.

With the faintest of smiles, the sex therapist took up Rabbi Gellman's challenge. "I discovered what I am good at," said Dagmar O'Connor, an American couples counselor. Pausing for the laugh, she explained: "Happiness is not orgasm." It's the love, physical and otherwise, through a long life with your one significant other. Like most things in life, love is a skill that can—and must—be learned. Alas, she offered no tips, except to hint that "it comes in increments—of about 11 minutes."

That did not sit at all well with Anne Graham Lotz, daughter of the Rev. Billy and founder of Angel Ministries. "Happiness is not about getting what you want, when you want it, and how you want it," she told the Davosians, whose successful careers might mistakenly be construed to suggest the opposite. Nor is life some sort of profane video game, she said. It is sacred, rooted in truth. "And that truth is God, the Bible and a personal relationship with our Father, Jesus Christ." She delivered all this in a chirpy, mile-a-minute staccato. And yes, she added, on the shoulder of every happy man and woman sits, quite literally, an angel.

Another polite brawl erupted moments later. Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, founder of India's Isha Foundation, rose resplendent in robes, turban and snowy white beard. "Happiness is the most fundamental aspiration of every human being," he proclaimed. "The source of happiness is within each of us, not in moments but every moment, continuously." Why, then, is such bliss so elusive? "Because," said the swami, "we make the mistake of looking for happiness outside ourselves." Instead we must look inward, contemplating our personal miracle, undistracted by what life brings or takes away. Happiness, he concludes, can be willed.

Oh, nonsense, spluttered Ernst Pöppel, a professor at the Institute of Medical Psychology in Munich and a famous student of human consciousness. "I have never been happy!" (Of course, he is German, a people as renowned for angst as for scientific precision.) After years of brain research, he explained, the scientific evidence is clear. Happiness is merely a chemical phenomenon, largely beyond our control, which we in retrospect define as joy, pleasure or well-being. From a biological point of view, the good doctor went on, "there is no happiness."

At this, the swami's eyes bulged indignantly. A banker groaned, "My god, that's depressing." With the dinner hovering on the razor's edge of disputatiousness, Paulo Coelho, the mega-selling Brazilian novelist, worked his patented magical alchemy. Happiness? Bah, he said. Who needs it? Emboldened a bit by the wine, perhaps, he plunged ahead. "I've never wanted to be happy! My books preach going for your dream, which brings pain, defeat, troubles and, maybe, triumph. Life is a battle. It is not happiness!" With that, he plopped himself back into his chair, laughing happily, to applause.

Such are Davos' answers to life's most persistent question.