The Paradox of Happiness

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“All that is best for us comes of itself into our hands – but if we strive to overtake it, it perpetually eludes us.”

-Ananda Coomaraswamy

WAS THERE EVER such a more important goal in life as Happiness? Everyone desires it. Happiness, contentment, satisfaction, fulfillment… Whatever you call it, it commands we sit up and take notice, otherwise we become miserable. The concept is entrenched in Western culture. The term ‘they lived happily ever after’ is the idealistic life we all strive for, though we know well enough that it’s only really applicable in fairy tales where everything turns out well. The truth is we all want life to turn out in contentment and satisfaction. We would be less than human if this weren’t so. But, here’s a warning: happiness is elusive!

It seems a contradiction in terms that happiness is difficult to get. It should be simple, yet I suspect each one of us identifies deep within us the need for satisfaction which is never satiated. We can attain happiness for a day, a week, a month, a year. But it never lasts.

In observing our “buy now, pay later” culture, there are so many people who spend their whole lives (and all the money they earn, and some they don’t earn!) just trying to “be” happy, or trying to achieve happiness. The truth: Happiness is elusive-in striving for it we often negate it. As the proverb says, staying happy is like grasping oil with the hand-it’s impossible to contain.

It is not wrong to want happiness, but it is wrong to go about getting it in a way that disregards other important factors of life. This is the trap. Happiness ought to be the by-product (coming as a result of what we do) not the main-product (the reason for doing something itself). Process is more important than outcome. This explains the quotation at the beginning. Strive for happiness and it perpetually eludes us. We need to almost forget about it in order to achieve it.

Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl also said, “To the extent to which one makes happiness the objective of his motivation, he necessarily makes it the object of his attention. But precisely by doing so he loses sight of the reason for happiness, and happiness itself must fade away.”

Seen as a process we have happiness as a high target-“the objective”, meaning a high emphasis of focus is placed on it; this in effect negates the reason for happiness, and happiness fades away. It has to. This truth pays homage to the fact that we often get what we give. Strive instead for right, good, just, and true things, simply because it is right, and happiness must come, eventually. Again, Viktor Frankl said,

“Success and happiness must happen, the less one cares for them, the more they can.”

Happiness defined in the world’s typical way seems to be linked with the achievement of a target or a goal like, ‘if I achieve this thing, I’ll be happy and content’. Most of us know, at least subconsciously, that rarely, if ever, does it work out this way. We are happy for a time with the new acquisition or “toy”, but soon the novelty wears off. This is the wrong way to happiness. It puts happiness as the goal, and disregards the path, the means of getting there.

Happiness has been formularised thus: Happiness = K (Knowing who you are) + D (Discovering your life’s work) + L (Learning not to tolerate what’s not important). That’s the formula for happiness-know yourself, [know] your true calling, and that you get what you tolerate (i.e. we should only tolerate what is important and leads us toward the goal-for instance, don’t tolerate bad habits that prevent you reaching a goal). (See reference 1)

To get to know who we are requires a profound spiritual journey. It cannot be achieved any other way. There is no depth that can be plumbed here. Each of us is radically and profoundly shaped within. We cannot ever be anything close to truly happy unless we become spiritual, acknowledging our innate spirituality. A word of warning however-there are many crooked paths to this goal; be wise and choose the right path! You don’t need to find yourself further from the goal than ever. This is the devil’s aim-to confuse your spirituality.

Discovering your life’s work in itself is bamboozling. How many teens get so stressed out (along with their parents) when trying to work out the “right career path”. How do we know? We don’t know what we don’t know. Without having tried some things we won’t have a hope of really knowing. Some however do in fact “just know”, and seem to have always known, what they’ve been “called” to do.

I believe what renowned psychologist, Martin Seligman said. What we have to shift is the emphasis. Instead of focussing on our feelings, we must work positively on those things that naturally stimulate and drive us; each of us is “called” to certain work. “Work” in this way is a blessing; in fact, we can’t really feel truly contented without having worked for it.

It’s also about appreciating the moment. Happiness, said Benjamin Franklin,

“Is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen as by the little advantages that occur every day.”

It has been written of Seligman again… It’s about outgrowing our obsessive concern with how we feel. He says, “The time has arrived for a science that seeks to understand positive emotion, build strength and virtue, and provide guideposts for finding what Aristotle called the ‘good life’.”

Now we’ve considered the first two, we need the courage to identify and correct those things that hinder the process of attaining them, essentially enwrapping these two. What do we just simply tolerate that we should not? Anyone of real significance in the world has met with and conquered this challenge. The challenge remains however-it is a dynamic process lasting through our lifespan.

What shall it be then to summarise? Firstly, don’t be tempted to short cut the process of happiness. I believe Christ said words to the effect, “seek first God and his ways, and all these (worldly) things will be given to you as well.” We need to do things because they’re right and right things will then happen to us.

We all have incredible significance, potentially. Perhaps the key to happiness lies in attaining the life we can have-an investment in getting to know ourselves, our life’s work, and ensuring nothing unimportant gets in the way.

What’s your destiny? Your happiness is probably linked with it.

Copyright 2007 Steve Wickham.

Reference 1: []

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