Happiness? It’s a great concept, a source of cultural conversation, a “right” to some – and a false god to others.
These are feelings I’m more familiar with, all of them wrapped around what I determine to be “meaning.” They form aspects of a good day, in a life – my life – which has never been consumed by the pursuit of happiness.
The New York Times features a thoughtful essay by Professor Gary Gutting, addressing his views on happiness and his manner of deciphering it.
In “Happiness Beyond the Data,” Professor Gutting partitions our desired Ultimate State into elements that are eloquently expressed.
What Does it Take to be Happy?
The four factors that serve up happiness?
Critical to the discussion is this: Professor Gutting specifies freedom from suffering as an essential aspect of achieving happiness, which he attributes at least in part to luck. As for the remaining three factors in the mix, we have: meaningful work; pleasure, both immediate and aesthetic (sensory appreciation); and love, romantic (spouse) and familial (children, friends).
On the subject of luck, the professor states in no uncertain terms that happiness isn’t possible without the cooperation of forces beyond our control, though I doubt he’s suggesting we don’t make the most of whatever hand we’re dealt.
As I see it, happiness involves four things, and the first one is mostly a matter of luck. You have to be sufficiently free of suffering — physical and mental — for happiness to be even possible.
Money Can’t Buy Happiness?
As for our pop culture notion that money can’t buy happiness, that time-worn adage is a bit facile, to say the least.
Professor Gutting writes:
Suffering can be noble and edifying, but it can also reduce us to a state where there’s nothing beyond our distress that can make it meaningful…
It’s true that money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy many necessary conditions of happiness: food, shelter, medicine, security… The great scandal is the paltry extent to which we have used our massive wealth to extend necessary conditions of happiness to many more people.
Individual Elements of the Happiness Formula
It’s not only this selection of happiness ingredients that rings true for me, but the necessary foundation – the first item on the list – should not be the domain of the few.
Reading between the lines, I see an underlying assumption that all elements are present in some acceptable, proportional fashion. Naturally, I couldn’t begin to guess at the elusive formula that would vary by individual as well as stage of life. After all, aren’t we different by nature, some graced by our better angels and others more frequently driven by demons? And don’t our angels and demons shape-shift as the years go on and circumstances change? As we change?
For instance, I may require four parts “pursuit of my passions” (providing meaning) to one part love. Or, I may need four parts lack of suffering to one part pleasure. Delving further and using the realm of pleasure as my example, at age 20 I may have yearned for one part carnal pleasure that tripled by 40, though the feast of aesthetics – my immense joy in fine art – has remained a constant for decades.
And once we become parents? Toss out the old measures. The formula is about to change.
Satisfaction and Meaning
As to feelings I experience on a regular basis – satisfaction, contentment, joy – I offer a few always-on-hand examples.
Satisfaction is fulfillment, which I experience when I complete an arduous task, and more so when that task reinforces my sense of purpose. That means giving in some way; contributing in a manner that is vital to my value system.
I feel satisfaction (mixed with pride) when my sons call from college, as I listen to them describe their activities, elaborate on their beliefs, recount their stories, and I enjoy getting to know the men they are becoming.
In those moments, I experience an indescribable sense of well-being, though I admit relief is part of the picture: knowledge that my sons aren’t – as Professor Gutting might put it – unduly suffering.
Contentment, the Happiness Cousin?
Contentment may be a close cousin to happiness, but it arrives more quietly and is easier to sustain. I think of it as peace of mind – a state that hovers between satisfaction and pleasure.
I feel it when I take a walk. I am filled with it by the kindness of friends.
If not exactly the conviction that “all is right with the world,” contentment provides me recognition that in the moment, in certain areas of my life or the lives of those I love, critical puzzle pieces are falling into place. There’s no need to time the feeling or even to name it. It’s pervasive, it’s grounding, it enhances my emotional and physical well-being.
If joy ranges from delight to elation, it carries with it a sentiment of appreciation. It’s a concept that comes more naturally to me – arriving in jolts, in whispers, in instants of jubilation. I experience it when I hear that a healthy baby has been born into the world. I feel it – blissful and alive – gazing at a magnificent de Kooning. I savor it when my children laugh out of nowhere, or the man in my life surprises me.
Professor Gutting doesn’t address joy in his essay; he’s tackling our prevailing preoccupation with happiness. Nor does he pursue matters of spirituality, which may seem like an essential (absent) component to some. Perhaps both are among the elements he leaves to individual discovery, as he concludes that there is more to life than happiness.
For myself, focused on moments of satisfaction, contentment, and joy – I’m well aware of life’s challenges, but reminded to appreciate the fullness of the ride.
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