In our culture, and even in our founding documents, we are told that the “pursuit of happiness” is one of our greatest rights and highest ideals. We are told that happiness is the best pursuit and the purpose of our lives, and why not? Don’t we want to be happy? Isn’t that better than the alternative? Why would anyone not want to be happy?
So why the critique? Hold on and I think you might come to agree with me (and if not, it will make for great conversation!).
I am convinced that the pursuit of happiness has disastrous effects on the human condition. As a father, I am not concerned one whit with my children’s happiness, and yet I think I am a good, kind, and caring father. So what gives?
Here is my belief: happiness, that fleeting and euphoric feeling we get when we think we are “happy,” is illusory and dangerous because it is so fleeting and it comes when we satiate our immediate desires for self-gratification, but rarely lasts beyond the moment. If we pursue happiness, we end up chasing that feeling (much like an addict seeking the “high”), and we become disappointed when we don’t achieve it or frustrated when it doesn’t last. In the end, we tend to be less happy than before (for a tragic look at this paradox, see a recent article in Time magazine titled, “$500 Million Powerball Jackpot: The Tragic Stories of the Lottery’s Unluckiest Winners” http://ti.me/V5VElq).
And yet our culture is greased upon the wheels of this myth by telling us that if only we would buy this product or use this service, we would find happiness. Watch just about any commercial, and the message you hear will be this: you are incomplete, unsatisfied, and unfulfilled until you use this soap! buy this lipstick! purchase this data plan! wear this Snuggie! (check out how happy these folk are now that they have that Snuggie! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2xZp-GLMMJ0)! Once you do, happiness is yours! Rush down to your nearest store! Go online and click! Call now! Don’t wait! Happiness is just a purchase away!
The danger, of course, is that this message relies on your belief that you are, indeed, unhappy and unfulfilled now and that what you want and need is that feeling of happiness in order to be complete.
And that is the very message I want to counter in my own children. As I said, I don’t care one whit that they are happy, but I care with my very life that they are whole. I care that they become good, wise, virtuous, kind, just men of integrity who care for others and work to make the world a better place. This vision has little to do with their happiness. What would make them happy would rarely make them whole. My son loves chocolate donuts, and nothing would make him happier than to eat as many chocolate donuts as he wants whenever he wants, but that would not make him whole (whole in this case = healthy). Watching tv all day would make him happy, but not whole. Get my point?
So am I a just a miserly Scrooge bent on bah humbugging everything? Not at all! I believe that the pursuit of wholeness, meaning, wisdom and virtue satisfies our deeper longings for contentment that lasts beyond the euphoric, fleeting feelings of happiness we experience from time to time. When we give our lives to pursuing wholeness, I think we will be happy more often that not; when we pursue mere happiness, we lose both.
For example, if I wanted to be “happy” in my marriage, my wife and I both would probably have separated years ago, for there are many moments when neither one of us feels “happy,” but by pursuing wholeness in our marriage (trust, commitment honesty, understanding, etc.), we get happiness as a byproduct more often than not.
My fear is that, for too many of us, the pursuit of happiness has us bouncing from job to job, relationship to relationship, fix to fix. Rather, if we would pursue meaning, purpose and wisdom, we would find that, even in those moments when we suffer, we have a deeper foundation upon which we can rely.
That, then, is why I don’t care about my children’s happiness, and why I think that’s a good thing.
- Redefining Wealth (scottamartin.org)