Happiness

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of the Distinctions newsletter. Old message, timeless wisdom. Happy reading!

“All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even those who hang themselves.” – Blaise Pascal

Do you think this is true? Do you live only to be happy? Are all your actions exclusively directed toward that end? Or do you feel that being happy is too superficial, too much a modern Western concern, unworthy of anyone of depth?

It may be easy, at first, for some of us to dismiss the centrality of happiness (which is, some will say, only an experience) with these counterarguments—but a closer look at our motives will show that we are aiming for happiness even if it will be delayed for quite some time (until we retire, or the kids move out, or we end/start a relationship, get lots of money, or make a big difference, or get enlightened, or the roses come in, or the Cubs win the Series). Really the only phenomenon we ever encounter is experience. We have, for example, the experience of good conversation or good food or good art: that’s all we can have. We never can “have” a thing; by “having,” we mean ready access to the experience of something.

So what experience do you want? How’s happiness sound? Is our desire to feel meaning or contribution or success or love more than a path we think/imagine/ hope will lead to happiness? Are we being good now so a reward of happiness will follow? Have we given up on being happy as a strategy to be happy?

Some readers will respond to what I’m saying with “happiness is only an assessment”— which may be right, as long as we note that it is not an assessment that we can control or bring about in an authentic way by an act of will. When we light up physically, emotionally, cognitively with what we call happiness, it does not occur because I say so. Have you ever found yourself faking being happy because the situation seemed to call for it? Was that different than what happiness usually is for you? And besides, isn’t calling happiness an assessment a way to get more of it?

So, as you can tell, I’ve been thinking about happiness a bit. To this point I can see many sides of the topic and I’m wondering which one will make me happiest.

The central problem I see in making happiness the be-all of human existence is that it gives short shrift to many other experiences—like serenity, or strength, or connectedness. If these are only seen as versions of happiness, then the word is referring to any experience that I like and it loses any distinctiveness. Can these experiences be enough in themselves, or must we add that they make me happy as well? I don’t think so. What about you?

A Really Big To-Do List

OK, let’s say you want to be happy; how do you go about that? My best view is that being happy requires attending to our life in all four human domains:

  • Domain 1—Can I tell what I’m feeling? (Otherwise you’d miss happiness when it shows up.) How can I accept more and more of what is happening? How can I push back my inner critic? How can I view myself as having a say in how my life is going, if even in a small way? How can I bring more gratitude to my life?
  • Domain 2—What foods leave me feeling light and energetic? What exercise brings me a sense of strength, presence, openness, flexibility? What pain or discomfort in my body am I worried about? What can I do about that? What can I do to enjoy my body more, to tune into the inherent pleasure in my body?
  • Domain 3—What can I do to be close to people I want to be close to? How can I have less contact with people that are toxic for me? What can I do to bring the contribution I want to make to people? How can I untangle myself from the expectations of others?
  • Domain 4—How can I release myself from my attachment to things? What can I do to break my habits of having my life interrupted/ disturbed by technology? What can I do to let go of comparing my belongings to those of others? What can I do to address recurring breakdowns with objects or equipment or processes?

Remember that the human mind is built from how we live, and the point of doing all the things on the list is to build a mind that can be happy.

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