The Search for Happiness and meaning in life
“If you never liked being an accountant, why did you stay in it for 30 years?” I asked him.
“Well, it was steady and the money was good,” he said.
We use a raft of words for happiness in this world: delight, enjoyment, contentment, fun, excitement, pleasure, cheerfulness. But none of them really make the mark. At most, they describe feelings that come and go with the wind. They all describe something that exists in relationship to something else. When the party is over, the delight goes with it. When the Ferris wheel stops, the excitement ends, too.
No, happiness cannot possibly be any of those fleeting, transitory things. Happiness is a great deal more than any impulse and its dependence on the mood of the moment. Happiness exists on its own. It is a steady-state operation of the soul. It sees every day through a filter of basic satisfaction.
Traditional definitions of a person’s call in life, however, never mentioned happiness as one of its dimensions. At least not happiness here, on earth, while I lived. Thomas Aquinas, great philosopher-theologian of the 13c, for instance, argued that happiness had to do with union with God. Happiness was earned during our lifetime but was not necessarily expected to be enjoyed here on earth. Happiness, real happiness, this theology implied, could only really be expected when death united us with God. Earthly happiness was not a topic in this catechism.
A call in life, in that world, meant to give one’s life to God, in some particular religious way. And even then there was no notion that a person would necessarily see it as a way to fulfill the search for personal happiness on earth. It meant simply to do the will of God, however difficult.
Those called to religious ministry should simply accept the duty as inevitable, as much the will of God as it was of any dimension of personal choice. What accounted for that destiny, however, what it was that explained how that destiny got forge–other than the oblique or whimsical will of God, of course–who knew? Most of all, how a person might recognize the will of God in their regard or what might make that sacrifice possible, let alone a happy choice, went unexamined.
In these theologies of life, the fact that a call to ministry was defined as a call from God sufficed for everything in life. There was nothing else to know about the justification for choosing it, nothing else to desire, nothing else against which to gauge the value of it. Merely to have thought of it was sign enough of its reality.
In each case, simply doing something good, something institutionally religious, apparently, was enough. Human happiness was not the issue. The notion that being happy with something might be one of the signs of having a call to it was entirely beneath consideration.
Except, we know now, that it’s not. Happiness, we have come to understand, is the driving force of life. It is the Holy Grail of human development. It gives to whatever we decide to do its dynamism. Happiness is the torch of life, the fire within, the very galvanism of our existence. And science, of all things, confirms that.
Neurologists have discovered that the brain is configured for happiness. We were born to be happy, just as much as we were born to communicate or to love or to reason. The very physiology of the brain is designed for happiness–which is why mood-changing drugs work. They satisfy the needs of our neurological chemistry and lift us out of depression or calm us into serenity.
Not to be happy, therefore, to be regularly dispirited or sad or negative, is not only not normal, it is an indicator of either life or chemistry gone wrong. Whole institutions and occupations have sprung up to help people find happiness. Their findings rank among the most startling scientific discoveries of the twenty-first century.
Medicine, too, has for years warned about the relationship between stress and physical sicknesses. To live in long-term situations that wear us down, wear us out, sour our hearts and choke our hopes will soon show up in our bodies, they tell us. And yet, we know that some people live in very difficult circumstances, even seek them out as doctors in African villages, for instance, as care-givers in hospices, as counselors in detention facilities, as total care providers for crippled children and spouses and never seem to wear down. What’s the difference between choosing lives like that and being stressed to the breaking point by them? And what does it have to do with finding meaning, with having a call to a particular commitment, a special place, in the world?
Psychologists, as well, recognize now that there is a set point for happiness in the human being that affects the way we see the world. This underlying perspective and attitude toward life in each of us is fundamental but not determinative. Just as there is a set point for blood pressure and weight gain and body temperatures in each of us that can be affected even if it cannot be permanently changed, there is a stable range of positive emotional responses in us, too, that can be shaped and reshaped in life. We can meliorate difficult situations and make life happy again. We can make changes. We can discover where we need to go to be happy and then take steps to get there. We can learn to distinguish the kinds of stress that invigorate us from the kinds of stress that deplete us and make the choices that give us life.
I have known, for instance, what it is like to be sick but happy at the same time. I’ve lived with the effects of polio all my adult life and never, ever counted that among the things that made me unhappy. Tired, yes; limited in some ways, maybe, but not unhappy. And I have also known what it is to be doing something good, like teaching rather than writing, and be unhappy at the same time.
It’s not difficult to understand that happiness is real. We have felt its fleeting presence. We know the depth of the pit within us waiting to be filled with it. We have seen happiness in people whose lives we doubt we ourselves could ever possibly bear: in paraplegics, of all people; in the poor who have nowhere near the things we have to ease our way through life; in the forgotten ones from nameless barrios who come into our plush living rooms on TV screens.
No, it’s not the possibility of happiness we doubt. It is how to find it that eludes us. The real challenge of life, then, is to understand what happiness is so that, from beginning to end, we steer our lives in that direction. If we feel a strong call to do something in life and never do it, can we possibly be happy? If we don’t really know what happiness is and follow the wrong star in the wrong direction, are we doomed? In that case can we ever find happiness at all?
It all depends.
One thing for sure, in our world happiness has become big business. We sell it in cosmetic bottles and buy it in weight loss programs. We’re told that it’s in marriage and then later that it’s in divorce. We expect it from our families and, when that fails, hope that by starting over again with total strangers –in another company and another city and another position with more pay–that we’ll do better the next time.
And why doesn’t it happen if, as the scientists say and our hearts insist, we’re all really meant to find it? Because as the Greek philosophers knew centuries ago, happiness doesn’t come from the outside of us. Happiness comes from the inside. Happiness has something do with what we do with who we are. Clearly, pleasure and happiness are not synonyms.
That’s why the momentary euphoria of drugs and alcohol only make us miserable in the end. That’s why power and money only leave us in dismay at the end. That’s why one more house and two more cars and the big new boat leave us engorged with things and empty, empty of heart.
Aristotle, the great philosopher of personal development, said happiness depended on developing ourselves to our fullest potential. On becoming the best self we can possibly be. On doing what we do for the sake of a better world. He didn’t call happiness a virtue. He said happiness depended on our commitment and involvement in “virtuous activity.” In doing good.
It is easy for those with resources to do a lot of things. We can travel, for instance, and sample every food of every culture. We can find thrills in theme parks and casinos, in race tracks and rock concerts. We can spend years acquiring money and things, renovating property and selling it at a profit, climbing ladders–anybody’s ladders, in either church or state–and at the end, when it is all over, when there is no more summit to climb, no more prizes to win, find ourselves still restless, still unfulfilled, more fearful of loss than we are satisfied by what we have gained. Then we understand the power of Aristotle’s definition of happiness. It is not activity, Aristotle says, that happiness is about; it is virtuous activity on which he grounds the search for it. It’s about doing something that makes the world a better place to be.
What fills the heart with happiness, ironically enough, is not what we get out of the world, it’s what we put into it. Being about something worthwhile, spending our lives on something worth spending a life on is what, in the end, makes us happy.
A creative God didn’t complete creation, I am convinced, so that we might have the happiness that comes with continuing to co-create it ourselves.
If we really want to be happy, we need to find out what we do best and do it to the utmost so that having done our part in this co-creation we can have the satisfaction such a life deserves. We need to learn that giving ourselves to something worth doing is more important, more valuable than giving ourselves only until something better, something more exciting, something more lucrative comes along.
The Sufi say, “For the raindrop, joy is entering the river.” We need, like raindrops in the river, to learn to lose ourselves in what we were made to be. We need to find ourselves about something more in life than the social status and streams of glitter that we have allowed to define us.
Being happy is not something that just happens to anyone. It happens to those who discover who they are and what it is that’s at the core of them–singing or cooking or planning or calculating. These people come to understand what it is in them that makes them unique. They discover what they really like to do in life, not simply what they do because everyone else does it. They determine what it is, of everything they do, that they do best. And then they choose what they can do with it for the good of the rest of the world.
This umbilical cord to the rest of the world is something we decide on consciously and clearly and then with great clarity of soul give ourselves to doing. I see happiness on the faces of wealthy people who serve soup in the local soup kitchen. I see it on the faces of young people who spend their summers building houses for people in mountain towns where coal mines closed and left generations of poorly educated people to fend for themselves. I see it in those who, after years of doing what everyone else wanted them to do, suddenly got up and started over somewhere else by developing their own gifts and becoming that gift to others.
But no one I know thinks it all happens in a straight line. No, life is far more exciting than that. It’s learning to live it that matters. Finding our own particular challenge may be difficult at first. But we do. Finally. Eventually. However difficult the way.
Life is a foreign language. Everyone mispronounces it.