Is the goal of life really the pursuit of happiness, or is there something deeper to be found?
To find in ourselves what makes life worth living is risky business, for it means that once we know we must seek it. It also means that without it life will be valueless. – Marsha Sinetar
In his fine book Finding Happiness, Abbot Christopher Jamison writes about his time as a headmaster in England. Prospective parents, he said, would regularly say: ‘all I want is for my child to be happy’. He goes on to say that while this aspiration seems reasonable, it excludes other dimensions of character such as being “decent, just and honest”. His point is that happiness needn’t imply virtue. It’s possible, he says, to be happy and “vicious.” After reading this book many thoughts started to surface within me. I thought I would try to explore a few of them with you here.
After reflecting on this rather elusive phenomenon, I started viewing happiness as operating on at least two distinct levels.
Levels of happiness
One is the everyday happiness that can visit us, often in surprising ways, which seems to uplift our spirits. Frequently unpredictable and short-lived this ‘routine’ happiness is all about the receipt of good news. This can be news about family, friends, work, money matters, the weather, catching the train on time etc. This type of happiness is characterised by normal, commonplace events that effect our lives and make them feel better.
Additionally, there is another deeper level of happiness, one that is more enduring. This type of happiness is dependent on the course of our life’s direction. If an individual has made the right choices in life, found their true path, or real vocation, then happiness, I would argue, appears without us ever directly seeking it. It is an epiphenomenon (a by-product) of our decision making and consequently follows us like a shadow. This happiness is that sense of fulfilment and contentment that surfaces from leading the meaningful and purposeful life that was uniquely intended for us. I suspect that Abbot Jamison knows all about this experience – the feeling that he had found and pursued his life’s vocation, that he had discarded all other possible options to tread his own distinctive path – that of the monk.
Perhaps the recent plethora of books and blogs on the theme of happiness (and how to secure it as if it was a product to purchase rather than a by-product of leading a good life) reflects the nature of our ‘go, get’ society. But this fast paced, consumerist culture can mislead us about the true value of our lives because it leaves us little time for deeper reflection on what life really has got to offer us, in terms of real significance and meaning.
Life is a gift
Life is a unique gift. It has been given to us to explore and develop. This journey is intended to enable us to find out who we are and what our role in life is. I accept that distractions, in all their manifest forms, are part of the path. However, to dwell constantly on them at the cost of pursuing the bigger picture is just too limiting. We must never waste our precious time because the imperative is always in place, despite our age, to find our true vocation. And only one person knows what this is and its distinctive trajectory – and that is, uniquely, you.
Despite the blandishments of popular culture, the goal of life is not happiness but meaning. Those who seek happiness by trying to avoid suffering will find life more and more superficial. As we have seen in every swampland there is a task, the addressing of which will enlarge one’s life not diminish it… In fleeing this fullness of life, we violate our very purpose. [James Hollis]
You can view Michael Lewin’s website at www.michaellewin.org
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