Amy's grandmother, Sigrid, was dying. She was lying in her bed in her small house next to a lake in the magical forest Sanaria. The water sparkled in all colors of the world and the birds were singing the most beautiful songs. But on this wonderful day, there was great sadness. Sigrid didn't have much time left to live, and it made Amy very sad. Her grandmother was a very wise woman and Amy’s best friend. Amy had gotten a lot of advice from her grandmother. But it was still something missing and they both knew that this probably was the last chance to give Amy some advice that could change her life.
"I don't want you to die," Amy cried.
"I know that, Amy. And I don't want to leave you, but I am in alot of pain right now, and nothing can make the pain go away. So I think my time has come."
"Still… I don't know how I can go on without you. I look up to you and you have always been there for me. Please, don't leave me."
"Thank you Amy… I don't want to leave you either, but it is time for me soon. I am not afraid of dying, because I can look back on my life with joy. And you will manage to go on without me. I don't want you to be sad when I die, I want you to remember all the great times we had and I want you to move on," Sigrid said. She sighed and looked at Amy with tears in her eyes. "Amy... Love is when you want to make someone happy, without expecting anything in return. Even if it may be painful sometimes. Letting someone go is the most altruistic thing you can do, because you do something that makes you sad because you care for that person."
"I know. But I am not ready yet. I feel lost."
"I know it is hard. But I have one last piece of advice for you. I want you to do your best to make others happy.”
"My greatest joy in life was to help others. And I believe, in my heart, that you will feel much joy in it too, Amy. Let this advice guide you when you feel lost."
Amy didn't really understand what her grandmother meant by doing the best to make others happy, but she didn't want to ask. She just wanted to make her last time with her grandmother as good as possible. It was a very beautiful moment. A couple of days later, Sigrid passed away.
Amy was thinking about what her grandmother had said. Every night those words kept her awake. Doing the best to make others happy. What is happiness? Who should you make happy? Why should you make others happy? How do you make others happy? There were so many questions without answers.
One day, Amy heard about an oracle who lived in a temple on the mountain. People from villages all around the kingdom went to the mountain to get advice from her. She was very busy, so a little further down on the mountain, there was the village of sages. They had answers to most of the questions people asked, but if there were any questions without answers, they walked to the temple on the top of the mountain.
Amy decided to go to the village of sages. She packed her bag with food, money and clothes. Now she was ready for her journey.
She walked. And walked. And walked a little more. Still wondering how she could do her best to make others happy and why. She was thinking that it was important to put your own needs first. Because if she broke down because she tried to help everyone, she wouldn’t be able to help anyone. But well, if she got the opportunity, she could try to do her best.
One day, she met a girl her own age. A girl with both long hair and a facial expression that made Amy think of a dark winter’s night. The girl was shackled with a chain that was connected to a tree. The girl was crying and Amy decided to ask her what was going on.
"I got chained here because the priests say that I am mentally ill. That I am dangerous. That I am possessed by demons," the girl said.
"That is awful! But how can I know if you are dangerous or not?"
"Does it matter? No one should be treated like this. I could have been you, your sister, your mother… I am a human being. In another life we could have been best friends." Tears fell from Amy's eyes. She realised that if some things in her life had turned out differently, she could have been the one in chains. Amy felt so sorry for the girl that every cell in her body screamed that she must free her.
"I am your friend! And I am ready to fight for you as hard as I am willing to fight for myself. Because I value your feelings and your suffering as much as my own. And if I was in your situation, I would like to be saved as well," Amy said.
The girl smiled towards Amy. "I am your friend too. Even if I don't know you, I love you. And I would do the same for you. Will you try to free me now?" she said to a surprised Amy.
"How can you say you love me? You just met me."
"I know. But humans can despise, dislike, envy and hate people that they know nothing about. So why not love, like and feel compassion towards people you don't know?"
"Wow… That was deep. I have never met someone like you... Someone like myself. I will help you now, because I love you too."
Amy hugged the girl and went to the village to find something that could save her. Of course Amy would free her. If such a small action could relieve a girl from so much pain, it was obvious what to do. Maybe this was doing her best to make others happy? She went to a blacksmith and told him about the girl in chains.
"Poor girl! We must save her!"
"Yes! We must! Can you please follow me to her?"
"Of course! Please, lead me to her."
The blacksmith and Amy went to the girl. When the blacksmith saw the girl he got tears in his eyes, it was his niece who was chained there.
"Jasmine!" he shouted and ran to her. He cut the chains and hugged his niece.
"Jasmine. Are you okay? What happened?"
"I am not okay. The priests in the village said that I was possessed by demons and that they shackled me."
"What? I will cut their throats…"
"No. Don't do that. I just want to go home. You and that girl saved my life. And I am deeply grateful for that, but I want to go home and process what I have been through."
Jasmine and the blacksmith thanked Amy for her help. They went to Jasmine’s house, reunited her with her parents and had dinner together. It was a warm and lovely meal with Jasmine's family. Her family was grateful for Amy's help. If Amy ever needed any help, they would do their best to help her. Amy appreciated their kindness and lived with them for a while. The friendship with Jasmine grew stronger.
The days passed. Amy and Jasmine had a wonderful time together. Amy realised that she was very happy with Jasmine. Every day, Amy did her best to make Jasmine as happy as she could. That was her greatest joy in life. Nothing made her happier than trying to make Jasmine happy. Jasmine was always saying that Amy should think more about herself. Because even if Jasmine’s love for Amy was great, she couldn’t give as much love back.
But Amy didn’t expect to get as much love in return. She loved Jasmine and Jasmine loved her back, that was what mattered for Amy. They cared for each other and were happy together. Jasmine was her best friend. She was kind, altruistic, wise, funny and she was a fantastic friend. Maybe the best friend ever. Amy knew why she wanted to make Jasmine, of all people, as happy as possible.
"Jasmine… I just want to say that I think I understand what my grandmother meant when she told me that I should do my best to make others happy," Amy said.
"How wonderful! Please tell me!"
"I think that when I do my best to make you happy I feel happier myself. It feels meaningful, I feel connected, I feel appreciated, you smile at me, we get precious memories, we laugh, you are kind in return and I do the best with my time with you."
Jasmine smiled the most wonderful smile but Amy saw sadness in her eyes. Jasmine blinked and looked at Amy. Her smile faded.
"Amy… That was very sweet of you. I am happy together with you and I love you… More than I love life itself. But I don't think that is what your grandmother meant. At least not fully."
"What do you mean?"
"You know when I was in chains… I was very miserable back then. But now I am happy. With you. But doing your best to make others happy should not be about just the two of us trying to make eachother happy. There are many Jasmines out there who deserve happiness just as much as I do, and I feel it is just so unfair that they still are miserable. That they never got help, but I did. Shouldn't we do our best to try to make them happy too?"
"I don't know. I agree with you, but how should we do that?" Amy asked.
"I think we should ask the sages. They must know."
"Great idea! I am glad that we are going on this adventure together."
"Me too. Let's go!"
Jasmine and Amy told Jasmine's family about their decision. Jasmine’s family gazed into nothingness for a short while.
"What if the priests catch you again? I am so afraid that you will get hurt again. And you still need to recover before you go on new journeys," her father said.
"I won't let them catch me. And I need to go, because I know that there are people like you out there. People who have lost their children to the chains. I need to reunite them with their children. It could have been me and you. You wanted me to come back, more than anything in the world. And I will give other people the chance to see their families," Jasmine said.
"It is beautiful that you want to help others. But I don’t think it is a very good idea even if I support you. I want you to go, so please, be careful,” her mother said. Her father nodded and smiled.
Jasmine hugged her parents and thanked them. After that, she started packing. Amy and Jasmine packed everything they would need for their journey to the mountain. Food, water, clothes, books, money and two toothbrushes. Amy used to forget her toothbrush, but this time she felt like a real winner.
After a while it was time for Jasmine and Amy to sleep. They felt too excited to sleep, so they began talking instead.
“I can’t wait to see the sages! I have so many things that I want to discuss with them! Finally I will find a community who love philosophical questions and reflecting as much as I do!” Amy said.
“I bet they will be very happy to talk to you. They will probably welcome you with open arms! Just imagine… Amy the wise - sage of Book mountain,” Jasmine giggled
“And as Amy the wise I will get ridiculous amounts of money for my wise words,” Amy boasted. Then they laughed. Their discussions continued until they fell asleep. Amy snored so it sounded like the four horsemen of the apocalypse were coming for the last judgement. But that didn’t bother Jasmine.
As the trumpets of doom faded and the sun rose, Jasmine and Amy got up from their beds. They ate breakfast, said goodbye to Jasmine’s parents and then they left. They walked for several days and had a wonderful journey.
They arrived at the village of sages. It was a beautiful little village with old houses. Amy thought that if elves ever existed, they would probably live there. Just as she thought that, a man that looked just like Amy imagined sages looked like, walked past her. He looked very old, very wise and was dressed in a mysterious cloak and had a pointy hat.
“Hey you! Are you one of the sages?”
“Yes. I am Darius the philosopher. And who are you and your friend?”
“Nice to meet you, Darius! I am Amy, and this is Jasmine! She is my best friend! Can we have the honor to talk with you?”
“Of course. Let’s go to the house of sages.”
They followed Darius to the house of sages. It was the most beautiful house Amy had ever seen. There were books everywhere! And scrolls! Lots of scrolls.
“Have a seat,” Darius said and pointed at a couple of chairs. Amy and Jasmine sat down on the chairs. They were annoyingly uncomfortable.
“Well… How can I help you?” Darius asked.
“We have hundreds of questions and we would like some answers!” Amy said. Darius rolled his eyes and suggested that they started with one question.
Amy was thinking about what she should ask. But she decided to go for the most important question first.
"Mr Darius sage Sir… I want to do my best to make others happy, how do I do that?" Amy asked. Darius grinned and tried to hold back a laugh but did barely make it.
"Amy... Happiness comes from the inside. You can never make another person happy. You can struggle as much as you want, but if they don’t let the happiness come from inside themselves it is just hopeless. People need to find their own way to happiness, you can’t walk that path for them. I am sorry to say this, but it is a foolish thought."
"I know it is foolish to think that you can make other people happy, I don't deny that. But I just think it is worth striving for being a person who wants to do their best to make others happy. Even if I will never succeed, I want to be someone who at least tries! I love Jasmine, and I know that I will never regret that I tried to make her happy. Even if she would just walk away now and never come back, I would never see my time with her as wasted.”
"I tell you this for your own good. You have only one life, and you must do the best of it. Because one day you will be old and regret that you did put your own dreams aside because you always tried to make others happy. You don't want to be the person who is full of regret on her deathbed. You don't want to regret that you worked too much and always prioritised others more than yourself and your own needs. I am sure that Jasmine is great and that you will always be friends. But one day you may find a person who you love and who doesn't love you back, someone who just takes advantage of your kindness. Wouldn’t that be a waste of time?"
“No. Because as long as I can tell myself why I love someone, I can be sure that it is a good human being. I can never know who will come or go in my life, so it is important for me to do the best with my time with others. That is why that time is never wasted.”
The eyes of the sage rolled again and he sighed. His facial expression turned into grumpiness. Not in its purest form, but a little grumpy.
“Amy… I don’t know how to say this but humans can be...” Darius said. He was about to say something more. But before he was saying something that would fill his heart with regret, another sage, who reminded Amy of her grandmother, put a hand on his shoulder.
"I think this girl has the most wonderful goal. I will help her find out how we can do our best to make others happy," said the sage and turned her head towards Amy. "So what makes you happy?" Amy blushed and didn't know what to say.
"I am not sure. But I will try to give you a good reply. I am happy when I am with people who love me. I am happy when I do things I like. I am happy when I do something meaningful. I am happy when I dance. I am happy when I laugh. And I am happy when I follow my heart."
"What a wonderful reply."
"Thank you! When are you happy?" Amy asked. The sage gave Amy a warm smile.
"I think I am happy when I am outdoors. When I sit at the ocean and read or in the forest and write. Or when I am with my friends. Or when I see my students make progress."
"I really like your answers! You seem to be very wise. What's your name?"
"Thank you! My name is Averin."
Amy and Averin smiled at each other. Averin reminded of Sigrid so much that her heart ached but it felt lovely to meet her. Darius apologised to Amy and Amy apologised back. She didn't know if it was necessary, but she apologised anyway. After that, things were settled. Averin and Darius began to look for the other sages while Amy and Jasmine began to look in the books. Maybe the books could tell how to make others as happy as possible?
While looking for information about the subject, Jasmine found something. She found a book about a village where people were very happy. The book explained why people were so happy in that village, but there was a lot of information missing.
They kept looking in more books. But they barely found any more information before the sages came back. Darius and Averin found two young sages, yay! One looked a little like a beautiful elf and one looked a little like a fortune teller. Both of them had brown cloaks and long hair. The fortune teller had a crystal ball in her hand. Averin introduced them.
"Hello! This is Amy and Jasmine. And this is Fenryn and William. They have the most knowledge about this subject, so I bet we will make the world happy in no time!" Averin said and winked.
"So… What should we do?" Darius asked.
"I think we should clarify the concept of happiness. So we know that we are on the same page when it comes to what we are looking for," Fenryn said.
The other sages thought it was a great idea and they encouraged her to start.
"I believe that happiness is when you feel more positive emotions than negative emotions," Fenryn said.
"I disagree. I believe that happiness is when you feel inner peace. You can't feel content if you are always looking for arousal," Averin said.
"I also disagree. I think that meaningfulness is the greatest joy in life," William said.
"I disagree too. I think happiness is more complex than that. I think happiness means different things for different individuals. What makes you happy may not make me happy," Darius said.
The sages were concerned about their disagreement. They had hoped that they would agree immediately. A deep sigh from the entire group filled the room.
"Well, my friends, how do you define happiness?" Averin asked Amy and Jasmine. Jasmine looked confused.
"What? Me? I don't know… I think happiness is when you feel content with your life. When you just can sit back and think that you have a good life."
"Interesting answer! I like that you are on my side," Averin giggled. "What about you, Amy?"
"My grandmother said something really wise once. It was that what matters in life is the lives that we have touched. So I think happiness is when you touch the heart of others," Amy said.
The sages thought it was a very nice answer. But Darius disagreed a little.
"Amy… What you say is very beautiful. But it may not be happiness. It can be a path to happiness, but it can't be happiness by itself. Happiness is something you feel, not something you do."
Amy sighed. She thought that the sages that were so smart would understand her, but Darius didn't seem to understand.
"I believe that love is that you care for someone, that is something you do. No matter how you feel. So why not happiness?"
"Because happiness is a feeling. Love is also a feeling. I agree that caring for someone is the foundation of love, but I think love is more complex than that."
The other sages interfered. They said that Amy and Jasmine could be great sages one day. And as great sages, they would get cool hats. If they wanted cool hats, it wasn't mandatory.
"I am thinking… Maybe we should discuss how to define happiness with more sages? In that way we could define it once and for all. But first we should ask the oracle. When we have a definition, we can help people to reach long-term happiness," Darius said. The others said it was a great idea.
The group walked to the top of the mountain. On the mountain top, there was a large and beautiful tempel. So astonishing that it was hard to believe that humans had created it. Amy didn’t believe in any God, so her second best guess was that aliens had created it. Inside the temple there were beautiful paintings of books, symbols and scrolls. At the end of the hall, a woman who looked like a 20 feet tall ghost was floating above the ground.
“Greetings sages, how may I help you?” the oracle asked.
“We wonder how we should define happiness and how to make as many people as possible as happy as possible,” Darius said.
“I don’t know. Maybe you should gather the other sages and see if you can come up with something?”
“I understand. It is a very good idea, thank you for your advice.”
First Amy felt disappointed that the oracle didn’t have any answer to the question. But she realised that even the wisest didn’t have all the answers sometimes. The group said goodbye to the oracle and went back to the village. They started to prepare for the great gathering of sages.
After a while, many sages from different parts of the world went online on their crystals and had a meeting.
“Hello! Can you hear me?” Fenryn said.
“You are muted, Fenryn,” another sage said.
“Yes, I can’t hear you clearly. But it is okay.”
“I hate these crappy online meetings,” Fenryn muttered.
“We heard that.”
“Yeah? I don’t care. I just turn off my crystal camera and work with other things when I have meetings with you because you never say anything relevant. You pretentious pricks. Now, I said it.”
But this meeting was relevant. They created a group of experts that began to define happiness. They also decided to conduct interviews and surveys to see if people in all parts of the world could agree on a definition, the determinants of happiness and the key to a happy life.
Amy and Jasmine helped the sages find solutions in their books and summarised the information about happiness. The sages gathered all the knowledge that existed about happiness. They came to the conclusion that because you can not know what makes every single person happy, you have to use existing knowledge to make as many people as happy as possible. All sages looked in their books, found interventions and conducted studies that increased happiness for people.
Amy's goal to do her best to make others happy seemed to succeed. With the help of the sages and all the knowledge, they found the most effective ways to make as many people as happy as possible. The leaders in the world listened to the wise sages. Of course they wanted their citizens to be as happy as possible. People all around the world became happier.
Amy thought it was beautiful that she did her best to help people around the world. People that she would never meet, people who would never understand that she helped them and she would never see the impact she made. Despite that, Amy was happy. She always did her best to make others happy, without expecting anything in return. But Making Jasmine smile every day and finding the best way to make people around the world happy was a reward in itself. Amy also got a cool hat. The end.
- I want to thank Happier Lives Institute, an effective altruism organization that aims to find the best ways to make people happy. I am grateful that I joined you and got the chance to know all the wonderful people at HLI. If I win any prize money, I would like it to go to HLI: https://www.happierlivesinstitute.org/ and the Swedish Network for Global Mental Health: http://globalpsykiskhalsa.org/index.php/in-english/
- Special thanks to Joy Bittner (HLI) and Simon Holm who gave me valuable comments on this text.
- Tens of thousands of people with mental illness are chained to trees or beds as a way to cure them, sometimes they are chained for many years: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/feb/03/all-we-can-offer-is-the-chain-the-scandal-of-ghanas-shackled-sick https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/indonesia0316_brochure_web.pdf