Author Archives: Arthur Pearlstein

Syntheism and Happiness

Religions through the ages have commonly put a major emphasis on human happiness, albeit in different forms. Is happiness important in Syntheism and, if so, in what way? For an answer, we can look to three icons of Syntheism—Zarathushtra, Spinoza, and Nietzsche—as well as to the modern scientifically oriented study of happiness.


In Zoroastrianism, happiness involves neither hedonism nor asceticism, both of which are foreign to the religion. Instead, Zarathushtra taught that happiness emerges from the quest for “asha,” or the natural way of the universe—that which fits or that which works. We participate in Asha in proportion to the degree to which we embrace the pursuit of wisdom and conform our actions to the laws of the universe. There is a profound joy that comes with this experience. In words that echo Zarathushtrian sentiments, Albert Einstein described a feeling “that takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law” and is “a sort of intoxicated joy and amazement at the beauty and grandeur of this world…” (Einstein, The World as I See It, 1934). Indeed, so crucial is happiness in this sense that Zoroastrians often greet each other with the word “ushta,” which roughly translated means “radiant happiness,” or the happiness in you that brings happiness to others.

Spinoza associates happiness with our activity—our engagement with the world. He sees the cultivation of knowledge, of intellect, through this activity as the source of our joy. In Spinoza’s thinking, we must reject what Deleuze refers to as the “sad passions,” that which disparages life, and instead embrace joyful, life-affirming, wisdom-seeking activity.

Nietzsche explicitly rejects both hedonism and asceticism. In fact, his notion of happiness is quite the opposite of the ascetic approach: Nietzsche sees joy as arising through the overcoming of suffering. What is more, Nietzsche’s notion of power is tied to complete self-overcoming and joy. Indispensable to happiness in Nietzsche’s view is fully embracing our sense of resolution and mission in life and engaging in a heroic struggle in that mission, in becoming our authentic selves. Happiness is a byproduct, or as philosophers say, an epiphenomenon of our plunge into our goals and activities. According to Nietzsche, the power to live one’s life actively, not reactively, and thus attain joy requires refraining from an effort to find some “true” (ultimately imaginary) world beyond what we observe.

The notion of happiness as emerging through our active quest to know the world as it is and to creatively pursue self-overcoming through our own goals is consistent with the growing, scientific study of happiness. Though emerging from the field of psychology, empirical, experimental research into happiness, more recently identified with “positive psychology,” has reached across disciplines and methodologies. In addition to psychology, disciplines involved in the systematic pursuit of research findings include economics, public policy, biology, neuroscience, philosophy, history, education, medicine, and many others.

In addition to, and to a degree overlapping with, the focus on activity, the modern study of happiness reflects principles that are consistent with the ideas of Zarathurshtra, Spinoza, and Nietzsche, and with the bedrock features of Syntheism. Among these are principles of community, creativity, and meaning.

A number of studies have demonstrated a link between happiness and community life, including socializing with family members, close friends, neighbors, and other community members. Moreover, people that get involved in religious congregations and volunteer organizations tend to report higher levels of life satisfaction. Generally, engaging in cooperative activities emblematic of a community are among the strongest correlates of subjective wellbeing. Having the space for the open exchange of ideas where individuals and groups can take risks and feel capable contributes significantly to our happiness. At the same time, being happy tends to invite greater cooperation from others, thus forming a feedback loop that can strengthen our communities.

Creative challenge and absorption in activity is closely tied to a concept that one of the founders of the positive psychology movement, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has referred to as “flow.” The subjective state of flow involves absorption in creatively dealing with a challenge that entails intense and focused concentration. Creativity, the key element of flow, has been shown to be closely correlated with levels of happiness. The happiness-creativity connection may find a powerful explanation with reference to brain chemistry. Neuroscientists have shown that happiness tends to trigger higher levels of activity in the prefrontal cortices of the brain. In turn, activity in the prefrontal cortex correlates with the strong generation of ideas. In other words, there appears to be a chemical connection between greater happiness and more robust creativity.

Personal growth is associated with our search for meaning in life: our efforts to experiment, develop ourselves, and realize our potential in line with our values and identity are the key elements of personal growth and are closely tied to our happiness. The greater the amount of meaning one finds in life, studies seem to show, the greater one’s level of subjective wellbeing. Meaning is the sine qua non of happiness. Drawing from interdisciplinary work in cognitive science in the context of happiness studies, psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains that humans “gain a sense of meaning when their lives cohere across the three levels of existence.” The three levels of our existence as systems that Haidt refers to are physical (our bodies and brains), psychological (our minds that emerge from our bodies and brains), and sociocultural (the societies and cultures that form from the interactions of our minds).

Happiness is, then, an important concept in Syntheism. Through active, wisdom-seeking engagement in life, participation in Syntheist communities, absorption in creative challenge, and searching for meaning, we become both better Syntheists and happier humans.