On more than one occasion I have taken exception to our preoccupation with chasing after our own happiness, not to mention what I have referred to as the Happiness Industry. In part, I find it ludicrous to pursue happiness as an American “right” absent a right to health or education.
All politics (of humanism) aside, perhaps the pursuit of happiness unsettles me because it appears to be the pursuit of material abundance, rather than seeking a state of contentment. Or, too often it is the pursuit of contentment that is heavily dependent upon the acquisition of stuff.
Can we agree that abundance ought to be about something more? That the chase for material goods or money above all else is a temporary fix, a goal always shy of satisfaction, and a moving target?
This time of year, we are hoping to feel abundance – happiness, if you will – overflowing in our seasonal spirits and present around our proverbial hearths. We shop, we decorate, we bake, we travel, we clean, we anticipate; we paint the pictures of scenes we imagine to represent the pinnacle of familial achievement – children gathered around a twinkling tree, couple and friends smiling graciously from the couch, gifts with shiny bows heaped beneath the aromatic fir.
I would suggest that this Rockwellian image is very nice, though I might prefer my recollection of the famous O’Henry story, “Gift of the Magi,” that tells of love and sacrifice, or even the moral lessons, now seemingly so innocent (yet no less classic), in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
In thinking of my own holidays ahead – one college kid returned to the nest just last night and the other to arrive in a week or so – I find myself distressed that my seasonal spirit has gone AWOL. I feel lacking in abundance in the ways that count: an abundance of time, an abundance of good humor, an abundance of energy – all of which are dependent on an equally absent abundance of sleep and, dare I add, bucks.
Yet as soon as my son walked through the door, a bit of holiday spirit re-entered the house along with him.
So I make a mental note to keep it simple but to honor it – this spirit of the holidays that for me is essential and familial – with a tree to be purchased in the coming days then decorated quickly, a bowl of ornaments and greens sitting by the front door, and an old folk art Santa on the mantel flanked by three or four pine cones plucked up from the backyard.
I have few gifts to wrap; they sit in two modest shopping bags in my disorganized closet. The budget will not allow for more. Consequently, there will be no bountiful “heap” nor any particular material abundance. There will, however, be the pleasure of good food (that is bounty indeed), both boys home (once they are), and their childhood friends in and out, most of whom are young men I have known since they were six or seven years old. That irritating and joyful traipsing has, in fact, already begun.
There will be laughter and conversation around the kitchen table as we eat – not only on Christmas, but each night before and after – along with the annoyance of my disappearing car keys, the return of the overflowing laundry basket, tussles over the thermometer in the living room, and the pleasure of cooking for and with both sons.
These are moments and memories in the making: These are gifts.
When it comes to the objects we exchange at the holidays, I have little recollection of who gave me what or when, but a warm sensation of family on any occasion when one or both of my boys are at home. The exceptions: I recall a scandalously decadent book on high heeled shoes from one son, a Top Chef cookbook from the other, and most precious of all, untold works of art (and craft) at the hands of each: paintings, prints, pottery, drawings, cards, constructions.
All of this brings me to Abundance Without Attachment, which I hope you will read, as Arthur C. Brooks explores this topic.
The formula for a good life… abundance without attachment… The assertion that there is nothing wrong with abundance per se is entirely consistent with most mainstream philosophies… In the realm of material things, attachment results in envy and avarice. Getting beyond these snares is critical to life satisfaction.
Mr. Brooks shares the ways in which we can increase the likelihood of experiencing abundance, the first of which is very familiar to me – experience over “stuff.”
He offers a simplistic nod to those with financial constraints, writing:
For those living paycheck to paycheck, a focus on money is understandable.
While he gives short shrift to the very real economic fears that bear down on millions, and not just at this time of year, there is much to be appreciated in his article – if you can set aside your cynicism at certain cited figures that dismiss the realities of income inequality.
Meanwhile, I remind myself that our small home is overflowing in many of the ways dearest to me, most important of which is the grounding, healing, uplifting and reassuring abundance of unconditional love.
My personal challenge, when my boys are absent, is to find this same love for myself, regardless of whatever else may be happening in, on and around my watch.
I urge you to go, read, and glean what you can, in your own pursuit of abundance.
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