What kind of happiness do you chase ?

Illustrated by Robert Labayen

The pursuit of happiness will send us to many different directions. I will go to a Broadway theater while you may run to a rock concert. The extrovert wants to be surrounded with friends when the introvert chooses to be alone. To a competitive executive, happiness means attaining higher goals. To a Tibetan monk, nirvana is reached by losing the ego.

I have a friend who is so obsessed with his garden that he can’t leave for work for as long as one leaf is out of place! I find it excessive but I remind myself that no one can judge the preferences of other people. To each his own.

I have realized that people often cannot understand (or cannot stand) one another because we are all unique in our passions.

Happiness wasn’t for all

Happiness was not always accessible. According to history professor Darrin M. McMahon in Happiness: A History, people in the time of the ancient Greek philosophers believed that happiness was only for the gods. Mere mortals had to live with (or die with) incurable diseases, political suppression, wars and poverty.

McMahon also said that the European Middle Ages are called the Dark Age because of the misery that the people had to endure. They were hungry, oppressed, and lacking the opportunities for economic emancipation. At that time, too, the Black Death epidemic killed up to 200 million. One-third of Europe perished!

Given such historical information, we should celebrate each day now that we have antibiotics, affordable education, the Bill of Rights, internet and freshly-brewed coffee in every street corner. The citizen of today has more freedom to follow their dream and has more opportunities to earn money and buy things. So we ask, can freedom and money really buy happiness ?

Money and happiness

In the book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, economist Richard Layard noted that on the average, people in richer nations are happier than those in developing countries. He also pointed out the rise in happiness of people in countries that have recently experienced economic growth. Examples are South Korea, Brazil, India and Mexico.

It’s not about being materialistic. It’s about the fact that money can help ease our worries about our family’s health, education and safety. But money does not guarantee limitless joy. Layard wrote that beyond a salary of 20,000 US dollars*, the increase in income will no longer be a guarantee of commensurate increase in happiness. (*Book was published in 2006 )

For example, according to Layard, people can be unhappy no matter how much they earn if they compare themselves with their neighbor. Earning less than your peer may make you think you’re not doing good enough in the rat race.

We also know so many celebrities who seemed unhappy in spite of all their money, fame, power and abundant sex. Many of them died from alcohol, drugs and suicide.

The United States may be a rich country but “Americans account for the two-thirds of the global market for antidepressants, which happen also to be the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States.” This was mentioned by Barbara Ehrenreich in the book Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

How about romantic love ?

It cannot be denied that love can be the happiest thing that can ever happen to a person.

When we hug our partner, the brain releases the hormones oxytocin and dopamine and they combine for a high that lasts a long time. Love is one of man’s greatest rewards. If you've been in love, you will know why lovestruck people can say "nothing else matters."

But if romantic love were on a coin, on its flipside will be pain. The one we love the most hurts us the most. Dr. Paul Dolan is a professor of behavioral science who published the article Will Love Make You Happy in the Psychology Today website. He wrote “The evidence is pretty clear that although love can make you feel great, it also brings quite a bit of misery, too –and not just when you break up. Being in love is associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety, too.” This is not meant to put down romance but to express amazement at how some people can endure the tests of love.

Finding our purpose

A sense of fulfillment is another thing that can overwhelm us with a good feeling.

Harvard psychology professor Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar wrote in the book Happier that happiness is the combination of pleasure and meaning.

Pleasure comes from the emotions we feel when do the things we like. But emotions may not be enough to keep us happy forever. As we have seen earlier, those who experience empty pleasure may soon find their fame and fortune a liability.

So, some people need meaning. It is what we create when we find our life’s purpose. It is about devoting our talents to serving other people. Perhaps to make them live better or to make the world a better place. The world is not necessarily the whole planet. Your world may be your family, neighborhood, workplace, community.

An article by Laura Oliver in the World Economic Forum described the concept of Ikigai. It is that sweet spot at the intersection of "what do you love; what are you good at; what does the world need from you; and what can you get paid for." Ikigai is believed to be one of the reasons why Japanese people live exceptionally long in places, Okinawa for example, where Ikigai is part of the culture.

The neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl also noted in Man's Search for Meaning that among his fellow survivors of the holocaust, those who lived longest were those who lived for some meaning in life.

Meaning makes us excited to wake up in the morning and to live for much longer. As the Dalai Lama advised, love, patience, compassion, and generosity will give us less pain and more happiness.

Although there are people who say that serving mankind is so much better than money, it may be difficult to focus on our job if we worry about food, clothes and rent. I also know people who say that a meaningful life is not all that happy if they don't have a loved one to share it with. 

So, let me repeat that no one can tell us how to live our life and how to define our happiness. At the end of the day, and at the end of our lives, no other person should judge whether we lived our lives wrong or right. It may be enough to be grateful that we now have more options for happiness compared to the people of ancient to Middle Age Europe.

“The happiness of man on earth, my children is to be very good…and do all their works with joy and love, because they know that we are in this world for no other end but to serve and love the good God.” St. Jean-Marie Baptiste

“Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” 1 John 3:18
What kind of happiness do you chase ? What kind of happiness do you chase ? Reviewed by Robert Labayen on 3:58 AM Rating: 5

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