Thursday, April 5, 2012

Is Chasing Happiness A Selfish Pursuit?

Like the American dream of owning your own home and becoming wealthy, the pursuit of happiness has become the touchstone that identifies the focus of many of our lives.  But is the pursuit of happiness, like the dream of financial success, an overtly and overly selfish concept?

As a child of the hippie era, I lived my early adult years in the fog of self indulgence and Spartan decadence, with hundreds of thousands of young North Americans around me choosing the irresponsibility of unemployment, “free love” and separation from the pedantic duty to the world around us.  Yet, our generation burdened those other North Americans that chose to work hard to build a strong nation, through consumption of health care and social assistance, and reliance on the infrastructure that those others sought to maintain. 

On the other hand, the social change brought about by indulging in personal exploration and examination of conscience helped in the evolution of the American and Canadian societies of today – both good and bad.

So, after forty years, our world has made a full turn, from indolence to industry, and back to the pursuit of individual happiness.  Will this quest for happiness have a different end result than that of the 1960s and 1970s?  Most likely, given that the gist of the modern effort is to find happiness in material wealth and luxury.  Ironically, many of those former capitalists and “yuppies,” though, are seeking satisfaction in a life of voluntary simplicity, and in that chase, hope to find happiness. 

One segment is looking for contentment in self indulgence, while the other is choosing self denial as a means to the same end.  Like a binge dieter, both probably are destined for failure.  The reason is not so much in their methods, but in their goals.  Like a dieter whose objective is to lose weight for some external reason, the reason may fade, and, with it, motivation.  But those that seek to become more healthy often have, as an integral part of the strategy, losing weight, along with changes in mental outlook, physical fitness and so on.  It is this balance that, according to psychologists, is more likely to result in long-term results.

Chasing after happiness is, in effect, a race to lose weight.  Happiness is only one part of wellbeing.  Immediate euphoric happiness, after all, can be found in a cloud of hallucinogenic smoke or a shot of illegal drugs.  Sopping up happiness, by itself, is not a goal but an act of gluttony.

On the other hand, happiness results when we embrace a concept of wholeness and completeness. 

I live in a climate where there are extremes of cold and hot.  I can only appreciate either if I have experienced the opposite.  True pleasure is maximized in contrast to a prior experience of discomfort.  Contentment comes from exerting oneself for the betterment of a cause, from helping others and from doing well, but not at the expense of others.  In other words, I must experience work to enjoy rest, and satisfaction after facing angst. 

Happiness, on its own, is not indulgent or selfish.  Happiness without earning it is. 

This philosophy does not require that I deliberately set out to be unhappy or experience discomfort in order to pursue happiness.  However, it does require that I be sufficiently courageous to face the possibility of negative experiences, in order to claim my spot at the happiness buffet.

Instead of viewing life through my own needy eyes, I should seek to find a fulfilling life, and from that fulfillment find happiness.  Having set aside my immediate wants to satiate the needs that I see around me, having taken the time to find a life that gives outwardly before it craves inwardly, and having understood that happiness is fleeting, while contentment is lasting, I will be able to accept happiness as a worthy objective.

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