Happiness seems such a wonderful place to visit. The world is full of happy pills, happy places, happy promises. No sane mind would argue against happiness. If we all could just be happy, everything would be fine, wouldn’t it? It’s even in the Declaration of Independence of the United States—“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Can’t argue with that. While scholars suggest that the word happiness as used by Jefferson in that time and place and for that specific topic means the right to pursue the course of life one wishes, ours surely is still a culture devoted to the pursuit of happiness.
And what does that mean exactly? I’m to be happy that I have a good job, food on the table, loving companions, and a roof over my head? I’m grateful, for sure. But would then happiness require me to forget the many imperiled not very far from my door, those suffering from poverty, intractable pain, and no prospects for amelioration? Does it require that I forget the corruption spread round the world, from the highest councils to the lowliest villages? Does it allow me to forget all the injustices, unrequited murders, holocausts, and natural disasters that are part of the lamentable catalogs of history? What does it take, what drug, what fantasy, to allow me to be happy in the face of what any thoughtful person knows? Am I to take those happy pills? Distract with the sundry divertissements of our time? Am I simply to finesse the question and believe in another life after this sordid mess that will redeem all this — restoring life to those slain, comfort to those in pain, and justice to those betrayed by their societies?
As a youth, I believed with all the naiveté and sincerity of youth that if I read enough, learned enough, and figured enough out, I would arrive at some sunlit plane where, free from conflicts and compromise, I would be in charge of my life and happy. While I’ve been blessed more than most souls on this planet and am daily mindful of that gift, I learned early that achieving one’s goals always leaves one hungry for the next level. If one is good, two must be better, right? I told myself that my goal was never money or power, but a sense of completion, of sustained satisfaction. Little did I know then that such an achievement would itself be a form of hell, for all closed systems are engines of boredom, stultification, and spiritual death.
It turns out that the happiness metric is a poor measure of a life. Happiness that is in any way based on denial, distraction, or ignorance is an affront to the soul and its depth. In my view, what abides is meaning. But what is meaning?
I believe that the way we attain some sustained satisfaction is in fact linked to our attitudes. Surely, Gautama, who became the Buddha, one who “sees” through the delusions of desire, was on the same track. He suggested that to become “no-minded,” to relinquish attachment to our desires, and to be wholly present to every moment is a far better way to attain satisfaction in the experience of this brief life journey.
Our experiences may be better described as meaningful rather than happy, though often, such moments are happy while they last. And there are moments that occur in the context of great suffering. I’m moved when I see strangers, in moments of natural disaster, reach out to each other in compassion and support, forgetting for a moment the issues that divide them. I’m moved when I see the resilience of the human spirit in people who’ve been battered by life. To see them survive, move through suffering, and reach a different place makes me happy, for a time, because it floods me with meaning.
If happiness is the goal, then everything becomes contextual. To the thirsty person, a glass of water is happiness, though a flood is disaster. To the frightened person, the moment of rescue is happy, until the next peril emerges. And so on. Happiness is transient, but meaning abides.
Meaning is individual and contextual. As we all know, two people can have the same encounter, and one is bored or frightened, while the other is exalted, moved to tears. We cannot say to anyone else that this painting is meaningful, this music worth your devotion, this concept worth your life. And why not? Because meaning is an organ of the soul.
What we find, if we pay attention, is that our souls are constantly registering an opinion. This opinion is very little like public opinion, for it’s the vote of one against the many. Such an opinion may make us uncomfortable, isolate us, or send us on a journey that we fear, but it’s the voice within that expresses the enduring opinion of the soul. To ignore this expression, which we all learn to do early on, means that we become strangers to ourselves. But the repressed returns in moments of sudden impulse, uncontrolled outbursts, troubling dreams, and most of all, in the erosion of meaning from our lives.
The more we give ourselves to the security of the known path, the more acceptable we may feel, but something in us does not accept this bad-faith arrangement. The more we’re part of a comforting consensus, the less we feel ourselves. The more we find approval from without, the more the psyche has to withdraw approval, until we feel drained, burned out, and depressed. In the unconscious pursuit of happiness, the soul finds aridity, one-sidedness, and a narrowing of focus. In the experience of meaning, we are asked to trust something deep within.
There’s one thing I know for sure: the soul never leaves us. Whatever that inner essence is, it abides, it persists, and it keeps showing up. It knows the difference between a contextual happiness and an abiding meaning. It knows and persists in reporting to us in ways that befuddle our conscious ploys, rationalizations, and evasions. Remembering what knows us better than we know ourselves, we find ourselves less distracted by the seductions of happiness. In those moments of recognition of what we’ve always known, we more likely undertake paths confirmed by that deep place as meaningful. And as we experience such meaningful engagements, sacrifices, difficult passages, and challenges along the way, we are flooded from time to time, but only for a time, with happiness.
Adapted excerpt from LIVING AN EXAMINED LIFE: Wisdom for the Second Half of the Journey, by James Hollis, PhD. Sounds True, February 2018. Reprinted with Permission.