Good health, time with family, the love of a good woman, or man, or golden retriever. I wish these for everyone. But I begin to doubt whether even these get deep enough when it comes to happiness.
I read an article over the holidays written by an expert in the Economics of Happiness. His point was that happiness cannot come from Things, no matter how much we keep trying and buying. He says that happiness can only come from Experiences, and that’s where we should spend our energy or money: a holiday with the family, a cycle ride with friends, a glass of wine with the wife.
Sounds like the description of a Butlins brochure. As I often find with economics, something important seems to be missing; it seems to fall a bit flat, just scrape the surface of things.
I think I’d describe my most happy memories last year as when I was vividly experiencing what Living truly entails. Confusingly at first, these occasions tended to involve not just joy and ecstasy, but also feelings of scarlet anger, moral outrage, or deep grief. Truly living seems to mean experiencing these emotions fully, without shutting away reality through denial, numbness or alcohol or the sweet distraction of an economist’s recipe for happiness.
What is particularly notable is that these emotions rarely surface when the situation only has to do with me and my situation.
Maybe the quest for happiness is too often mistaken for the individual’s happiness, a kind of isolated, separated idea of happiness. What I have noticed of people when they are at their most human, is that the happiness of others matters every bit as much as their own. When I really think about it, other people’s happiness is probably the biggest determinant of my own happiness, when I’m not in tunnel-vision economics mode.
And they don’t have to be people I know. I can’t tell you how upset I get these days when I deeply acknowledge the underprivileged, those millions or more who are the direct result of (or the prime ingredient for) the excess, comfort and convenience that I enjoy.
And they don’t even have to be people for that matter. I can barely describe how outraged the reality of mass species extinction makes me; the injustice of one species thinking it can exterminate all others in its normal course of business. And the pain of how endangered our own future might already be as a result.
These are not Happy Thoughts, for sure, so the logical response would be to turn away and quickly scurry back towards optimistic Happy Thoughts. But again and again I find the truth lies in the paradox. Relentless positivity, and other popular forms of denial, leads to things like inequality and species extinction, and a deep sense of anxiety. Never happiness.
I think I am at my most happy when I have a vision, a quest. Not a project, or a strategy, or a motivating corporate mission. A progressive uncovering of what my most deeply-held convictions are, and living them, breathing them, weaving them into my fabric… with all the unpleasant surprises and contradiction and stunning inspiration that entails. And then going forth to serve in some way. Reaching deeply inwards and then projecting widely outwards.
This kind of purpose is what it seems that cultures (unfortunately excluding mine) across the world for hundreds of thousands of years have agreed on; the definition of what it means to be human, and every person’s challenge. Look what happens when a culture loses that.
Living for values that I would die for… the idea immediately puts a lump in my throat. It makes me shudder and it makes me wildly excited. Maybe these are some of the indicators that real happiness might be nearby.