Have you ever considered that aiming for happiness might be aiming too low?
Do you say to your kids, “I just want you to be happy”?
Or, “I don’t mind what you do with your life – who your partner is or what career you choose – as long as you are happy”?
Or do you think you deserve more happiness than you are getting?
Maybe you think it is your partner’s job to make you happy?
Why focus so much on happiness anyway?
In this article, I look deeper into what brings satisfaction, contentment and meaning to our lives, especially as a couple. Happiness may just not do it. Happiness might be aiming too low.
What is happiness?
The word “happiness” comes from the same route as “happenstance”. This, in turn, is a blend of two words, happen and circumstance. So, happiness is something that happens to us, a happy circumstance. Some synonyms of happiness are contentment, pleasure, satisfaction, cheerfulness, cheeriness and merriment. Add gaiety, joviality, carefreeness, gladness, delight, good spirits, high spirits, light-heartedness, good cheer, well-being, enjoyment and felicity.
These states are all on the light side – no dark emotions here. So if we aim for happiness, what are we going to do when the dark experiences arrive? And arrive they will.
A child’s life should be carefree and happy. It is our responsibility as adults to protect them and their environment while their brain is growing and their ability to withstand stress is so undeveloped.
Do all you can to protect your children from traumas of any kind. Happiness is not aiming too low when it comes to kids.
Happiness is certainly desirable, and you will find many writers guiding you in the search for happiness as a goal in itself. And certainly, the life of young children should be protected from any kind of trauma and disruption until they begin to develop the capacity to be resilient at about age 3. Even then, stressors should be avoided, and a happy environment cultivated. It is in the stress-free environment that both the personality and the brain can flourish and grow normally.
Paradoxically, perhaps, it is this happy foundation that resilience is built on.
But let’s move on to adulthood. The romantic fantasy that our culture cultivates certainly paints a picture of unalloyed happiness. However, according to the Developmental Model, the honeymoon phase must grow into something more able to sustain growth and difference. I think of the pursuit of happiness in a relationship as the “lite” version of relationships. It leaves a lot out. As in “lite” food, often the best parts! This “lite” version is part of an adolescent fantasy about relationship and life, rather than something that will sustain itself through time and circumstance.
So if “happiness”, that light and airy quality, cannot sustain us as we tend to the suffering of life in ourselves and others, what will?
So, if happiness is aiming too low, what are the alternatives?
1. Jung and the Search for Meaning
Firstly, I take up Carl Jung’s proposition that the search for meaning is the most important thing and that this search gives our lives an anchor. It is certainly a more substantial idea than searching for happiness.
He said, that, “the soul longs to discover its meaning” (CW 11, para. 497). What is the meaning of life, all life, my life? Is essential meaning to be found? Will I find some sense of purpose in achievement or status? Is there meaning in happiness? Will meaning manifest through the right relationship? What is the meaning of these problems I am facing? What is the meaning of my suffering? Is there a meaning?
Like Jung before him, Viktor Frankl believed the search for meaning was one of the important driving forces in the human psyche and in fact placed it right at the centre of his theories. His book, The Search for Meaning, is a classic and a “must-read” if you are searching for the deepest meaning in your life and well as life as a whole.
On the theme of meaning, Jordan B Peterson’s book “Maps of Meaning” will also take you deep.
2. The experience of being alive
Second, let’s consider Joseph Campbell’s proposition that it is the “experience of being alive” that makes life itself worthwhile. For Campbell, it was not the search for happiness or the search for meaning. This is what he says:
“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, the author of “Flow: the psychology of optimal experience” illuminates the kind of life we should all be living, through flow. He argues that one of the highest states of being is the state of flow — when you’re totally engaged in an activity, riding the narrow channel between boredom and anxiety. Curiously, he claims that being in a state of flow leads to deep happiness. Playing a musical instrument, making love, playing sport, and being in nature are ways we might enter flow. A drummer, in particular, can only play well when in flow.
A drummer relies on flow to play well. If she becomes self-conscious, she loses the beat. Try it!
3. Assume responsibility as a path to meaning and contentment.
Shouldering a good dose of responsibility gives a sense of meaning and purpose. Try this one too!
What exactly does this serious responsibility actually look like? Well, when we are children, being responsible for a pet is a serious responsibility.
When you are a child, taking care of a pet is a serious responsibility. And a joy! From our responsibilities arise our deepest joys.
Completing one’s homework is serious business, too. So is helping with chores and keeping one’s room tidy. (Jordan B is big on this theme.) As adults, delaying gratification and getting decently educated is a mighty responsibility, and a protracted one too, often taking years. Entering a committed life-long relationship is certainly a serious responsibility. Add having children and you have a very long-term responsibility. It is heavy. It’s weighty. And very joyful! Happiness?
Happiness comes as a result of taking responsibility. What a paradox!
Is happiness an ego quality, or a soul quality? Ego happiness is fairy floss, akin to the “lite” version of life I just mentioned. But soul happiness is what comes when you’ve carried those responsibilities wisely. Soul happiness comes when you face the conflicts and fess up all your worst, most despicable characteristics, all your thoughtless mistakes, your terrifying insecurities – and your partner is still there tomorrow. You’ve been accepted just as you are – not for a FaceBook edited version. When you both do this, you have deep happiness – but there is no fairy floss. There is no “happenstance” here – you worked for it.
Does your relationship provide balm to the troubles of the world and give you happiness?
We are often careless in our expectations about what a relationship will bring. Happiness, for instance. Will your relationship provide a calm port in life’s storms? Can you provide this calm port for your partner? Do you sort through all the conflicts that arise, in a way that the solutions will hold? If so, you will indeed be continually building a stronger foundation and creating a safe harbour.
Does the Dalai Lama think that happiness is aiming too low?