Monday, February 25, 2013

The Pursuit of Happiness

I suspect sometimes that many of those in the developed world who claim to be unhappy are dissatisfied precisely because they have made happiness their goal. Instead of finding people to love and then loving them well, they pursue happiness. Instead of developing their talents and then looking for meaningful ways to use them, they pursue happiness. Instead of losing themselves in the beauty of the moment, they ignore the present moment in favor of an elusive happiness that lies, always, beyond the next horizon.

Happiness isn't rightly a goal at all. Instead, it's something that accompanies both the pursuit and attainment of other goals.--assuming they're the right ones. If you choose your goals wisely, you find happiness in both the journey and the destination. If you choose poorly, you find that your achievements become like empty calories: They make you fat and sluggish.

And one of the poorest choices, when selecting among life goals, is happiness itself.

In this respect it's like the pursuit of pleasure. Pleasure accompanies activities you like to do. In order for you to find pleasure in eating a snickerdoodle, you need to want the cookie. If all you want is the pleasure that comes from eating it, eating it will give you no pleasure at all. But if you love snickerdoodle cookies, and you close your eyes and savor the flavors as they fill your mouth, then you will know pleasure.

You will know pleasure because you pursued what you loved. Not because you pursued pleasure.

In general, nothing gives pleasure unless you want something other than pleasure. The more things you enjoy--reading, dancing, walking in the woods, a hot shower in the morning, the flavor of coffee on your tongue, backrubs and, yes, sex--the more pleasant your life becomes. Because pleasure is the feeling that comes with getting and doing all those varied things you want. If the only thing you want is the pleasure itself, pleasure becomes perpetually elusive.

Happiness isn't the same thing as pleasure, but I suspect it works in something like the same way. But instead of being what accompanies getting your desires met, happiness is what accompanies a life lived meaningfully.

There's pleasure in it, of course. The happy life will not be a life without pleasure. But happiness isn't found in just stringing as many pleasures together as you can, because there are pleasures that spring from meaningless appetites, from desires that have no connection to a life shaped by purpose. To give more than ephemeral pleasure, an activity has to be more than something you want to do. It has to be something that matters.

So, instead of pursuing happiness, my advice would be to pursue meaning: nurture relationships that matter, care for people in need, develop your gifts and use them, work hard to accomplish goals you can feel proud of, explore your world with wide eyes and a curious spirit, stop to appreciate beauty and excellence when you encounter it, savor what is good.

Do that, and happiness will pursue you.

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