Ronit and I read a lot about happiness, we talk a lot about happiness, we write a lot about happiness and we do our best every day to be happy. In fact, we believe that happiness should be the main pursuit of everybody’s life. But some people say this focus is filling the world with selfishness and that people who want personal happiness are selfish.
In a book called The Lonely Crowd, David Riesman wrote in 1950 that people could be split into two groups. He said that the inner-directed person “has a trustworthy character and builds his life on the stability and security of his family. Usually, he believes in the Judeo-Christian faith”. The other-directed person, on the other hand, is “dependent on the approval of others, especially experts. They are consumed by a quest for personal happiness, so that … anything becomes permissible if it makes me happy”.
Yes, this is an old book, but I read this quote this morning in a much newer book on personal power and relationship skills, so the notion that our pursuit of happiness makes us selfish and self-centered is still very much alive today.
So what’s the deal? Does personal happiness equate to selfishness? Does the search for personal fulfillment make us lonely?
“Pooh!” the bear snorted, “Again I say pooh!”
– The Big Brag, Dr Seuss
Being a selfish happiness seeker is like drilling for oil in your own back yard. No matter how much oil you find, the yard will never be the same, your house will stand out from the rest and none of your neighbors will remain your friends. It is like cutting down the trees in the Amazon and making a quick buck, but destroying the future of your children and their children.
Happiness is not the same as instant gratification. It is not the same as temporary joy, excitement, elation or even comfort. Happiness is a state of mind that permeates everything in your life. It must be sustainable.
If not, all we have left is the pursuit, and that makes for a very hard and disappointing life.
So how can you tell if your focus is on the right sort of happiness and that you are not wasting your time on becoming more and more self-centered and self-serving?
I suggest that whatever you do and whenever you have a decision to make about a course of action, you use the following questions:
- Is it good for me?
- Is it good for others?
- Is it good for the Greater Good?
Those who stop after the first question may very well make selfish decisions that hurt them in the long run, hurt others and ruin the future. But those who keep going through the list and assign the same level of importance to all of the answers make decisions that will lead them to more and more happiness over time.
Notice that these questions are all based on your personal interpretation of what is “good”, who are “others” and what is the “Greater Good”. It really does not matter how you see each of these, the simple consideration of other people, future generations, some kind of a moral system and/or society in general will always yield better decisions with more sustainable outcomes.
You see, the world is a very (VERY) large mirror. What we see in the world is a reflection of what is inside us, at least in some way.
Let’s say your life is stressful and you decide to go on a 6-week meditation retreat on a mountain in India. Your partner will have to take care of the kids and your family will miss you terribly, your customers will get no service for a long time and your business will suffer from this, which will later hurt your ability to provide for your family. Sure, it will make you happy, at least while you are meditating, but at what cost?
By realizing the effects on others, you could instead learn to meditate at home, spend some time every week doing Yoga, possibly with your partner and children. It may take you longer to relax fully and feel pure and healthy, but you will find a lot more support around you to sustain your journey.
One of the worst trends today is divorce due to one of the partners being unfaithful. Every couple’s life involves pressure and even conflict. Finding a fresh person and satisfying our hunger for attention and love with them may be a quick and easy way to temporary happiness, but at what cost?
By realizing the effects on others and on us in the long run and by looking at our society and seeing what this trend is doing to it, you would see that taking personal responsibility for your actions and investing in your existing relationships is a more sustainable approach. After all, there is no guarantee the new person will keep making you happy for long either.
As a parent, you may be happy when your kids play quietly, particularly if others see this as testament of your good parenting. So if your little boy starts throwing things around, you may feel he is stealing your happiness and making you look bad. You can call him “naughty” and do your best to “discipline” him, but at what cost?
Although you may feel justified in “setting him straight”, when he stops trusting you and avoids your company, your will regret your actions and may not be able to recover from them. Moreover, if you examine the behavior of other kids whose parents react in a harsh and self-centered way, you will realize your influence on the world in which your kids grow up. It can be a place full of “naughty” people who feel bad about themselves or a place of trust and respect for all.
By realizing that your best parenting asset is your child’s faith in you, you could try to find out what troubles him and guide him towards peace of mind.
Similarly, many parents link their happiness to their children’s academic performance. If your teenage girl’s grades begin to drop, you can nag her to do her homework, tell her she is lazy, forbid her to go on Facebook and ground her for weeks. You may see yourself as providing order and proper priorities to your daughter at a time of hormonal unrest, but at what cost?
By realizing your support role in her life, you could make her feel safe enough to pour her heart out and tell you her boyfriend broke up with her, let her cry a little on your shoulder and reassure her you will always be there for her. This will teach her how to handle grief and disappointment and validate her emotions.
All too often, there is a conflict between our immediate satisfaction and our long-term happiness. That is just how life works. What is good for us right now is never just that. We are surrounded by people with different interests, beliefs and desires that still matter. And even the people who live far away often have some influence on us (like those clearing the jungle trees in Indonesia or those who make our clothes in China).
So practice asking the questions above. First, you will have to think about every answer carefully, but over time, it will become second nature, like riding a bike. And just like riding a bike, it will make you happy.
Have a great life,