By Chris Chittenden
"The pathos of man is that he hungers for personal fulfillment and for a sense of community with others .”
… J. Saunders Redding (1906 - 1988) US historian and educator
In the western world, we seem to have a preoccupation with the pursuit of two things - money and happiness. Furthermore, we are constantly inundated with messages that suggest the way to have a happy life is through more wealth. Ironically, these messages are not aimed at making the listener happy rather the speaker wealthy.
Happiness is a topic that shows up regularly in the media as something we should be all be striving towards. Indeed, some countries have introduced the idea of “gross national happiness”. Yet, should happiness be our goal?
Being happy is an emotion we experience in response to something we enjoy. So, on the surface, the pursuit of happiness seems like a worthwhile goal. Yet, what would happen if we follow this to its ultimate conclusion and be happy all the time?
Our emotions colour our world. They mark what we like and what we don't like. They inform us of what we should move towards and what might hurt us. They can tell us about what is really important to us. As such, our emotional responses are critical to the human way of navigating the world. So like being sad all the time and living in a depressed state, being happy all the time also blinds us to vital ways of interpreting what is happening for us. Too much happiness may blind us to the challenges and threats we sometimes face in life.
Now I am not trying to say that we should not seek to lead a happier life. That is a noble goal. However, it is useful to recognise that happier does not necessarily mean more complete. If we tend to focus solely on wanting to be happy, it is all too easy to reject other emotional responses such as sadness or anger as “bad”. As such, we can shut out those responses and what they are telling us about ourselves and the world. Ultimately this can lead to a disconnection with the world and how we navigate it.
If we are to think about this in a different way, it is useful to start with the idea that our emotions are not a goal in and of themselves merely pointers along the journey of life. As such, our emotional responses represent an area of learning about ourselves and what is important to us.
In that context, rather than a goal of happiness, perhaps we could speak about a goal of fulfillment in life. A life where we recognise the richness and value of our emotional life and the role those emotions play in helping us live a full life. In looking at our pursuit of fulfilment, we can recognise life is not always about pleasure and sometimes the most fulfilling experiences are born of sadness or frustration.
© 2012 Chris Chittenden