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The Pursuit of Happiness

By Adam Ureneck, SCV

In the last article on happiness, I proposed the pursuit of happiness as a path toward living an integrated life in an increasingly technological world. But, this left open the question about the object of this pursuit, happiness itself. Addressing that topic will be the center of this short reflection.

In taking on the topic of happiness my intention is not to conclude with a succinct definition, dusty and detached from human affairs, but rather to describe its key attributes to bring the concept down to earth. That is not to say that definitions themselves are unimportant, just that they lack potency in such an early discussion about the subject. The usual reaction when I described the topic for my next article was like the one I received from a close friend. “Happiness,” she replied, “Well, good luck with that.”

As fool hardy as it may seem in 1500 words, connecting this lofty idea to everyday life, is possible. In fact, it is closer than we think, and for the most part, I believe this reflection will merely provide words to describe what people have already lived. And, finding words for life can help us become more intentional in the pursuit of our aims. At this stage in the discussion, we need something close, on which to grab; lower rungs on the ladder that can be reached in our initial steps toward understanding and attaining true happiness. Characteristics provide those lower rungs on the ladder.

With that said, and to begin, the four characteristics I propose for happiness in as much as it is true happiness are: 1) happiness is eudaemonic, 2) happiness is shared, 3) happiness is spiritual, 4) happiness is love.

1) Happiness is Eudaemonic

We all desire something, or many things. If not, we could say that we are dead. An aspect of vitality is desire, and our longing to satisfy that desire drives us in our thoughts and actions. When a desire has been satisfied, whatever it maybe, we can say, “it has been fulfilled.” A variety of situations can be fulfilling: a citizen fulfills his duties through voting; an athlete fulfills his appetite by eating a large meal; a first generation American fulfills his dreams by sending his children to college. Happiness relates to the state of being after the person has fulfilled some aim.

As the examples above show, there are degrees to fulfillment just as there are also degrees to happiness. The experience of the person who eats a piece of chocolate is different than the one who finishes paying for his child’s college education. One experience is deep and long-lasting while the other is sumptuous and fleeting. Classically, these two types of fulfillment and their impact on the person have been divided into hedonistic (fleeting and short-lived) and eudaemonic (resilient and long-lasting). While both are good (nothing wrong with eating chocolate), we could say that one is superior to the other.

A characteristic of true happiness is that it is eudaemonic. Even science confirms this on a physiological level as explained in an article from the Atlantic.

“Eudaimonic happiness have reduced biomarkers of inflammation, like interleukin-6. These biomarkers, according to researcher Carol Ryff, are linked to a number of health problems like metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, so lower levels of them might offer a protective benefit.”

In the same article, the author notes how hedonistic satisfaction works with the “reward circuits” of the brain that release dopamine and reinforce addictive behaviors.

The truth is, a life filled with hedonism without eudaemonism tends to be a miserable, unhappy one. Happiness, if it is really worth of the name, does not come one day, and then inexplicably dissolve with the next. Happiness comes as the result of living with purpose, maturing in life according to principles, and making small sacrifices for some higher aim. It is an unexpected gift of well-being and serenity that comes after a struggle. This type of happiness is not for the faint of heart, but almost because of that, it is worth fighting for.

2) Happiness is Shared

“Happiness (is) real only when shared.” Those were words written by Chris McCandless, the subject of Jon Krakauer’s non-fiction classic, Into the Wild. The tragic story recounts the true story of a young seeker, eager to test himself against the wilderness of Alaska in order to discover healing and truth in his own life. What he discovered was his own unpreparedness and fragility in the harsh environment, along with the longing to return to civilization and his family. His words, written while in the final throws of starvation, make a tragic, lasting statement about what he did discover about happiness and its true nature.

While true happiness is eudaemonic, it is not entirely fulfilled in isolation. In order for the happiness to be complete, the joy associated with some great achievement needs to be shared. I find this to be increasingly true as I get older. In my early 20s, spending hours alone on a trout river casting to a rising fish provided me endless satisfaction. Now, I resist taking a trip to the river alone. Successful fishing outings just don’t feel the same without the ability to share the excitement of the day’s catch with a friend. Even when I am alone on the occasional trip, I find myself willing to drop my phone in the water just to get a picture of a nice trout in order to send it to my go-to fishing buddies. The beauty of a fall brown trout seems to glisten with greater colors when presented to someone else.

When we share some achievement, we believe it to be good. Not only do we share naturally when having accomplished something, but we hope to share goodness to the other person. Experience also proves this to be true. We can all think of the people we contacted after receiving that acceptance letter from college, welcoming a new child into the world, or of a wedding proposal. In each of these examples, the person receives some good, and then naturally wishes to pass that along to others. And, in that sharing, the other person rejoices as well and happiness is augmented further. It is as though the joy of some good attainted overflows from our hearts, and that this good only increases as it touches the lives of others.

3) Happiness Is Spiritual

Spiritual is a loaded, and often misunderstood word. I mean it here in quite the literal sense, spiritual as immaterial. It is not bound to material circumstances. To follow the Beatles song, just as “money can’t buy me love” neither can it buy me happiness. There are plenty of miserable wealthy people in the world just as there are countless happy people who live in unimaginable poverty.

I discovered this truth once and again during my five years living in Peru serving in the shantytowns surrounding its largest city, Lima. Before this direct experience with grinding poverty, I would have said that a direct cause and effect existed between poverty and unhappiness. But, as I began to meet the people, feel their warmth and generosity, the strength of their family ties, and see their joy, I began to wonder who had greater riches. I think this experience is common for someone traveling from the United States to the third world. Our great achievements lose their sparkle when we witness people expressing a palpable joy, which we find largely absent in our homeland. As Pope Paul VI wrote, “Technological society has succeeded in multiplying the opportunities for pleasure, but it has great difficulty in generating joy. For joy comes from another source. It is spiritual. Money, comfort, hygiene and material security are often not lacking; and yet boredom, depression and sadness unhappily remain the lot of many.”

With that said, I don’t want to say that happiness is entirely disconnected from material circumstances either. Romanticizing material poverty is a luxury for people who haven’t experienced it. But, I did resist using the word “developed” versus “developing” world in my descriptions above. If I were to include happiness in our criteria for developed, I wonder who really best fits that category. It seems that the poor have much to teach us about living in community, faith, and detachment from the promises of material success. A Peruvian, despite all the hardships he faces in contrast to our own abundance, is eleven times less likely to commit suicide than someone from the United States.

4) Happiness is Love

The last statement about happiness concerns self-gift. This giving of oneself stands in opposition to self-centeredness. In a conversation with a dear friend of mine, 35 years my elder, he summarized this point well when he said his one goal as a parent was to instill in his children this simple bit of wisdom: “It is better to give than to receive.”

Perhaps this last characteristic is the most important of them all. Someone who loves knows how to place the good of another before his own. Love isn’t bound by material circumstances, and sharing (communion) is at the heart of any loving relationship.

The relationship between love and happiness is a mysterious one because it appears paradoxical. The logic of self-preservation, engrained in our culture and instincts, fail us in trying to understand how it provides a lasting sense of well-being. Somehow in giving, I receive. Somehow in losing something, I gain something greater in the process. The truth is this – a life filled with sacrificial love tends to be the most meaningful, fulfilling, serene, and impactful.

This millennial truth, perhaps lost in our own day, is supported by the best scientific evidence on the subject of happiness. The Grant Study, a 75 year longitudinal study conducted at Harvard on what leads to healthy aging, demonstrated how essential relationships were to living a healthy life. Dr. George Vaillant, psychiatrist and professor who led the study for many years, went even further. He concluded quite simply: “Happiness is love. Full stop.”

Watch a video of Dr. Vaillant’s findings here.

In the next article, I hope to conclude this series on happiness with a reflection on happiness and the Christian life.

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