The hardest thing for me to write about is happiness. Not because it eludes me, but because it is so many different things to so many people.
For some, happiness is a state that we never speak of but naturally yearn for. “Ask yourself if you are happy,” John Stuart Mill said, “and you cease to be so.” For others, it is a north star — the guiding principle of every decision we make in life.
For the majority of us, though, it seems to be the elusive feeling that’s always just over the hill. Maybe if I get this house, be with that person, get this promotion, or go to that school, I will finally be happy.
I used to think along these lines, but it ended up making me deeply unsatisfied with life. Ironically, not making ‘happiness’ the goal has led me to be happier than I’ve ever been.
Is happiness the answer?
The central lie of Western life is that success leads to happiness.
Worse, to be unhappy, we are told, is to be broken. Something is wrong if we aren’t happy, we need to ‘fix’ ourselves, get back to the ‘correct’ path. But the ancient Greeks knew too well that in order to understand happiness we need to understand suffering.
More importantly, the ancients viewed happiness in a different light to the way we seem to understand it today. For Aristotle, true happiness is achieved by cultivating eudaimonia, which scholars translate as the notion of ‘flourishing.’
Happiness, Aristotle believed, is not a state but a habit. Eudaimonia is not a goal but a way of living that could, and often did, involve suffering.
Related to this idea is the Chinese notion of yin and yang — the ebb and flow of nature corresponding to the volatile temperaments of our human nature.
In our pursuit of happiness we have become restless and unsatisfied, a civilization addicted to dopamine and drugs that too often only fuel our discontent.
I don’t think happiness is the meaning of life. More valuable than being happy is being fulfilled.
Today we are bombarded with more information than ever before. We look down at our screens for the fleeting pleasure incurred from the added ‘like’ or ‘follow’. We look around us for inspiration, but in response we are told we are not pretty enough, smart enough, or successful enough.
Fulfillment is the ability to find peace of mind with one’s existence. So I ask myself each day, What kind of person do I want to be? How shall I live my life?
Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in his book, The Lonely Man of Faith, provides an answer.
He outlines two characters, Adam 1 and Adam 2. Adam 1 is worldly, ambitious and hungry. He asks how things work, and his motto is success.
Adam 2 is humble, understated and giving. He asks why we are here, and his motto is love, redemption, and return.
Neither is the ‘correct’ path. But their goals give us an idea of which one the wise Greeks would have chosen.
Adam 1 seeks happiness through success; Adam 2 cultivates an inverse logic:
- you must give to receive;
- you must conquer desire to get what you want;
- to find yourself you have to forget yourself.
But there is little harm in worldly ambition steered by a moral compass. The trick is consider what it is we truly value.
Our friend Aristotle said there are 4 levels to happiness:
- Material pleasures; i.e. objects
- Ego gratification; i.e. status
- Generativity; i.e. giving back
- Transcendence; i.e. finding purpose
I can’t help but believe that for us to shake our modern discontent, we must collectively move from happiness in material pleasures to fulfillment through giving and purpose. We choose to be a society dependent on material pleasures. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Small change, big difference
There’s no modus operandi for life, but one place to start when looking for inspiration is with those we look up to.
We might seek fulfillment through the pursuit of reason and knowledge, stirred by the beauty of learning. “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth,” said Henry David Thoreau, and the search for truth is a noble mission.
Or perhaps it is a deeper appreciation of those around us, our friends and family, that adds true meaning to our lives. The writer David Brooks describes what he calls a ‘galaxy of warm places:’ reading a good book, playing the piano, cooking dinner with friends, admiring an artwork — those physical spaces in life that coalesce with a spiritual space of peace, and joy.
And when fate comes around to deal us a bad hand, we are better prepared to get back up, and grow as a result. “Out of suffering comes a depth of character,” writes Brooks.
Or, finally, we could embrace the collective wisdom of each of these ideas. A profound appreciation of the present, seeking value in what we have rather than what we lack, and cultivating our own galaxy of warm places.
“Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.” — Christopher Hitchens
We could do worse than to heed these words.
A version of this article appeared in The Mission, under the title What kind of person do you want to be?