What Is Happiness? (November 21, 2005)
I hope you'll forgive an entry on the nature of happiness. We English speakers suffer from a dearth of words to describe this fleeting human condition, and "happiness" does a poor job of covering the many shades of mental states ranging from contentment to euphoria.
We are all interested in increasing our own happiness, of course, and many of us strive mightily to reach goals which we reckon will vastly increase the measure of joy in our lives. This is the part of human nature which our Constitution addresses as the "pursuit of happiness."
But alas, happiness in all its permutations turns out to be more amorphous than many imagine. The "life goals" which are proported to create joy--marriage, birth of children, a managerial position, a new car, and so on-- often turn out to be disappointments. Happiness, it seems, is both fleeting and ephemeral.
The expectation of permanent happiness is sure to disappoint--our minds don't work like that. But there are ways we can become generally happier: to hold goals which are not materialistic or dependent on the approval of others, and to find a livelihood and circle of friends which reflect our true selves.
Numerous studies have shown that people who value materialistic goals (wealth, fame, image) are less happy than those who value more intrinsic goals (personal or spiritual growth, friendships and relationships, community involvement, nurturing children, creating beauty via art, gardening, etc.). Clearly, happiness is achieved by progressing towards these intrinsic goals, not by attaining materialistic ones.
Interestingly, it has been suggested that too great an emphasis on making money can predispose people to various unhealthy psychological conditions, including attention-deficit disorder-- the same disease currently running rampant through our entire game and entertainment-addicted society.
In other words, our popular culture, in which the "state religion" preaches a blatantly consumerist view that all happiness flows from buying new toys for ourselves or in the consumption of "entertainment" in the form of hollow celebrity, mindless television and mind-numbing games--is the very perfection of unhappiness: utterly materialistic, agitated in its hunger for new toys and new distractions, completely reliant on status, rising incomes and a coarse obsession with fame in its most tawdry manifestation.
As for constructing a life which reflects our true selves (as opposed to a materialistic set of "happinesses" we are constantly urged to pursue), I refer to an earlier entry inspired by the writings of American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson entitled Self-Reliance: What It Means to Be American.
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copyright © 2005 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.
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