Why we're obsessed with happiness

Story highlights

  • Adam Potkay: The search for happiness is at the heart of the oldest literature we have
  • He says happiness is connected to the eternal questions about life's purpose

Adam Potkay, the William R. Kenan professor of humanities and chairman of the English department at the College of William & Mary, is the author of "The Story of Joy: From the Bible to Late Romanticism." Follow CNN's Project Happy to explore what happiness means today, dive deep into the different ways we pursue it and find some tools to help make your life better. Come join us and #gethappy! The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)As humans, we're consumed by questions of happiness. We have been at least since we started writing literature, about 5,000 years ago.

As individuals, we typically start to think about happiness as adolescents, when we come to self-consciousness.
Happiness enters our consciousness anxiously. It involves nagging questions like "Am I happy?" or "Why am I unhappy?" We ask, "How can I be happy?"
    Adam Potkay
    These questions are related to still more fundamental questions: "Why am I alive? Why do loved ones die? Why am I born to die? What is the purpose of life? Is there a purpose in life?"
    Questions of happiness are never simply questions about subjective well-being -- they're that, but they're also questions about the big questions in life, the ultimate questions.
    Literature, at least great literature, begins with these questions. The oldest piece of great literature we have, dating back to the early 1000s B.C. and written in Sumerian/Akkadian -- the languages of the first great Babylonian civilizations -- is the short "Epic of Gilgamesh," who was a legendary king from around 2500 B.C.
    Gilgamesh has a dear friend and companion, Enkidu, who dies, and this death throws Gilgamesh into despair. He first comes to think about happiness through the loss of his childlike contentment, to think about the point of life through confronting the shock of death, the death of a loved one, and his feelings of despair.
    He resolves to find the one immortal man, Utnapishtim -- the Babylonian Noah, made immortal after the flood. On his quest to find Utnapishtim, Gilgamesh first meets the wise woman Siduri, "the woman of the vine, the maker of wine."
    Siduri tells him all there is to know: "Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man, they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man."
    Speaking personally, I choke up just writing those lines. There it is: pretty near the acme of wisdom, offered at the beginning of high urban civilization and written literature.
    Utnapishtim, it turns out, doesn't have much more to offer. Being granted eternal life, Utnapishtim glumly reflects that all things constantly change. Gilgamesh ends up returning to Babylon, and we presume he follows Siduri's advice -- though he comes to appreciate, too, the human achievement of urban civilization.
    The one increase in wisdom I find after this comes in the fifth century B.C., when great thought flourished in Athens, Jerusalem, India, and China. In the biblical book of Ecclesiastes 9:1-9, Siduri's wisdom is repeated almost verbatim -- it had become a commonplace of Near Eastern wisdom literature. But the author adds one more important thing:
    "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or thought or wisdom in the grave, where you are going."
    Pursue worthy or innocent activities with all your might: That, too, is the lot of mankind. Plato and Aristotle agreed.
    So what makes me happy? They're the very things that make us distinctly human: learning, teaching, conversing; governing and being governed; athletic activity; and of course the arts -- listening to music, watching films, going to museums, reading and writing books. These are fruits of the urban civilization Gilgamesh came to affirm.
    And, as Siduri and Ecclesiastes say, happiness is also eating, drinking, and being merry with beloved family and friends, for as long as they're with me, or I with them.