I have been re-thinking happiness lately.
We all strive to be happy. As a society we are obsessed with chasing happiness. But the harder you chase it, the more elusive it seems. Such has been my experience anyway.
Our brain has been hard-wired to seek happiness since the dawn of time. This ‘seek happiness’ default program in combination with the ‘avoid pain’ default program ensured our survival when we lived in a hostile world. But somewhere along the evolutionary line, our quest for happiness has morphed into an expectation that we should be happy – always. And when we are not, we think that something is wrong with us.
Modern and ancient philosophers continue to tease apart this puzzle. Aristotle, described four distinct levels of happiness – Laetus, Felix, Beatitudo and Sublime Beatitudo. How is your Latin? As non-existent as mine? Try this – Pleasure, Achievement, Contribution and Ultimate Good.
Pleasure. Pleasure is pretty self-explanatory. It’s intense and relatively easy to achieve but also quite transient. If you have ever sought solace and found yourself at the bottom of a bag of potato chips licking the salty crumbs off your fingers, you know what I am talking about – instant gratification. But because it’s so short lived, pleasure often does not solve the problem at hand, and in the long run, has its own associated negative consequences. Eating gives us pleasure. Over-eating – negative consequence. If pleasure is your only source of happiness, life can be pretty shallow.
Achievement. This is happiness derived from being better than someone else. Everyone likes winning – in sport, at work, in academics and in relationships. Achievement in and of itself is not a bad thing, but achievement is the holy grail in the comparison game. It’s such a dangerous game and it’s rampant, like a highly contagious infectious disease with no symptoms until it’s disseminated far and wide. Unrelenting comparison against some unrealistic, random, constantly changing, stupid societal norm only serves to feed our deep insecurities. If you derive your happiness from always being better than the next gal, you are bound for disappointment. No one always wins. It’s just the way life is!
Contribution. Concern for the well-being of others is at the core of contribution. We are happy, when others in our lives are happy. Many reach this level, particularly if you are a parent. Simply put, contribution is shared love for another. How can there possibly be a problem with holding the happiness of others in high esteem? What parent does not want more for their child? It’s called love and sacrifice. They put the well-being and happiness of their child first and foremost above their own health, well-being and happiness. Often to their own detriment. When your happiness is dependent on someone else’s happiness, there is no winning!
Ultimate Good. Aptly described by Stephen Covey, ultimate good involves leaving a legacy or fulfilling your ultimate purpose in life. Others consider it knowing the love of God in spiritual/religious terms. Leave a legacy – such a wonderful aspiration! But make it an expectation and happiness evaporates. What remains is a deep sense of disappointment, self-reprimand and ‘not-good-enoughness.’
So depressing, huh? The pursuit of happiness backfired!
Not really. The problem lies in the expectation that we ‘should’ be happy.
I would like to offer that happiness is not the pinnacle for which to strive. What if, instead we strive for true meaning in life and genuine connection with others? Think about it. If your life has meaning and you have connection with others – would you not be happy? And best of all, it would be defined as you define it!
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines happiness as a “a state of well-being and contentment.” Perhaps, as defined by Emily Esfahani in ‘The Power of Meaning,‘ we should tweak it just a bit…. “A state of feeling you are where you want to be, with whom you want to be, doing what you wish to do.” So much more descriptive!
Meaning + Connection = Happiness. Now there is an equation worth resolving! More later!
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