22/08/2013 07:52 BST | Updated 22/10/2013 06:12 BST

The Pursuit of Happiness

The American Declaration of Independence mentions the pursuit of happiness as one of the unalienable rights for people; the others are life and liberty. I have always found the phrase "pursuing happiness" problematic. The dictionary defines happiness as the state of being happy, and it defines happy as "feeling or showing pleasure or contentment".

Assuming the basic needs of shelter, food, heat, love etc. are met, what other magical ingredients are needed to transform our lives into a state of happiness? We may believe that a bigger car or the latest mobile phone or laptop is the answer; only to discover that the happiness associated with such an acquisition is transitory, soon to be followed by the desire for some other product.

Contentment, actually, is the appropriate word to define happiness; however, what is being sought by people is the temporary kind. We need a deeper more profound type of "contentment". An old Arabic proverb describes it beautifully "contentment is an inexhaustible treasure". Contentment, framed thus, becomes the treasure, not the product.

So we need to cultivate ways of developing it. The starting point, it seems to me, is to simplify our lives. The advent of social media has complicated our lives further, presenting us with more pressures that undermine our contentment. We now have Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn etc., with associated numbers of likes, followers etc., to make most of us feel somehow inadequate.

We seem to have become addicted to affirming our importance and relevance by the number of likes and followers. No one is immune. I am not on Facebook, or LinkedIn, only on Twitter, and I have to admit that I do look at the number of retweets and favourites I get when I post a tweet. I now have to make a conscious effort not to be elated or disappointed by these numbers.

This is no criticism of social media. I think it is great that we can exchange information and ideas with people all over the world with such speed. I hope it will lead to greater understanding and empathy with people of different cultures and ethnicities. However, we must not let our level of contentment fluctuate with the number of approvals we get. Such highs and lows are transitory and can be addictive, with people needing higher and higher numbers of approvals to achieve the same buzz. The nearest example would be a drug addict needing a higher and higher fix.

It is unfortunate that we are developing a culture of "self" gratification, be it fame, money or status etc. An unhealthy obsession with oneself leads to insecurity and anxiety, destroying contentment and happiness regardless of the material goods one possesses.

My life experience has taught me that the antidote to such problems is to forget about oneself. Concentrate on bringing happiness, as far as possible, to the lives of those closest to you, family and friends. Put their needs above your own, and soon you will discover that making someone else happy lifts your contentment level, and your own happiness.

If you have time, volunteer to help others less fortunate than you. This will have the double effect of the satisfaction of knowing that in a small way you have contributed to the happiness of another human being, and also help you to see the blessings you have.

Pursuing happiness is another manifestation of self obsession; it is the antithesis of what happiness is about. It is not something to be pursued; it is a by-product of our relationships with other human beings, and best achieved by helping others and by being kind, empathetic and forgiving.