Jordan and I recently watched the movie Hector and the Search For Happiness. Go watch it if you haven’t yet–it’s a good one. I won’t give away what the message was, but I will say that it got me thinking a lot about happiness, and what it means to be happy in the greater context of our lives.
This is already a topic I’ve thought about a fair amount, and I don’t think I’m alone. We care a lot about being happy in this country, and the message that happiness is something we ought to seek is pervasive: at least once a day I see a post being shared among my Facebook friends about happiness. The titles usually read: 10 Things Happy People Do Daily or Doing This One Easy Thing Will Make You Happier! And then you click and it’s this lame semi-thoughtful post about how we shouldn’t compare ourselves to other people and how we need to do what makes us happy. I mean, duh.
For a lot of people, happiness is the goal. Happiness is a comforting goal to have, because it outlines the path that we should take forward. There are specific things our society tells us are essential to happiness: a fulfilling, long-lasting marriage, a job that both makes us rich and happy, a comfortable, beautiful home, and beautiful, well-behaved children. Now, I don’t want to generalize, because the United States of America is a big place, and there are lots of little sub cultures within the larger one. But the spouse-job-kids-home story is the one that Hollywood tells most often, and it’s the one we see many of our successful doctor and lawyer and actor role models following.
There are other stories about happiness, and some of them are ones that I find it hard not to subscribe to. The whole back-to-the-woods culture springing up is all about happiness. People are beginning to believe that by doing things the old fashioned way–growing their food, making things by hand, living simply and close to nature, that they will be happier. Usually there are other motives alongside that–having a smaller impact on the world or keeping active and healthy, but happiness is rolled in with it.
And that message, along with other happiness stories, has some truth to it. Yes, it does bring me joy to make homemade pizza dough. Yes, it does bring me joy to think up new, more efficient ways of living. And yes, it brings my mom a ton of joy to have a husband she loves, fairly well-adjusted kids, a comfortable, beautiful home, and a job that simultaneously makes her money and makes her happy. So sometimes these stories do actually lead to happiness.
But sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it isn’t possible to have every part of the story. And then not having it makes you believe that you can’t be happy without it. And so you aren’t, because you’re constantly caught up in trying to get it. Or, sometimes you get all those things, and you’re still unhappy! Or you’re happy sometimes and unhappy sometimes, and let’s face it, this is the most likely possibility for everyone, because no one is happy all the time. And if you were happy all of the time, it would probably be creepy and the happiness itself would be less rewarding because there’d be no color of other emotion in your life.
Do any of us truly want to be constantly happy? It sounds sort of terrifying. Sometimes it’s nice to experience other emotions too. Being sad or melancholy or angry or wistful can be sort of nice. Those emotions are part of life, and are we truly living if we don’t experience all of them?
Further, what happens if we stop living for happiness?
When we stop living for happiness, we start living for other things. Think about so many of the famous artists and politicians and writers and religious figures and thinkers of the world, past and present. The people whose names we know as doing work that truly cuts to the core of humanity aren’t people who were necessarily happy. They were and are people who live for something greater than happiness. They don’t do what they do so that they can wind up content at the end of their lives–rather, they write and fight for something bigger than themselves. They are gripped by the condition of humanity, the condition of the world. They see a void, and they move to fill it with themselves. That doesn’t mean that those people are always unhappy, but it does mean that their personal happiness isn’t the be-all and end-all of their lives.
And that’s a beautiful thing.
We are obsessed with happiness because all our other basic needs are filled. Here in America we have shelter and clean water and food. We don’t have to worry about our physical safety on a daily basis. (Actually, that isn’t true. A lot of people DO have to worry about it–and this basic fact is a testament that we still need people to live for something other than happiness). So we turn to the ever elusive state of happiness as our goal.
I challenge you to rise above it. Instead of making happiness your goal, find a cause that makes you feel sad and angry and desperate and devote yourself to it. I’m not saying you can’t be happy too, or that you can’t have a job and a spouse and kids or the other things that make you happy. Be happy if you are happy. I also don’t want to imply that you have to change the world. Maybe the thing that wakes you up is rescuing dogs or maybe it’s educating low-income kids or it’s writing novels that change how people think about women. Do those things, and if you help one kid or one dog or one woman, despite all the emotions beside happiness that might have come with it, your effort will have been worth it.
What I am saying is that life isn’t about being happy all the time, and it’s impossible to be happy all the time anyway. So maybe instead of worrying about whether or not we’re happy, we should find bigger things to worry about, and devote ourselves to them.
Do you have any thoughts about happiness? Do you live for it?
One thought on “On Happiness”
I once heard “be happy, but not satisfied.” Not sure it applies here, but it might.