I wrote that a couple of posts ago (The Pursuit of Happiness) and was amazed at the many reactions to that post. I was exploring the difference between having happiness and purpose/meaning in life. I was amazed at how many people stepped up to defend our “right” to happiness. Let’s continue the conversation.
The other day we had a major snow storm, and I went out to play in the snow. I was going to make a snow angel on our picnic table, but ended up in a lazy heap in the snow grinning at the sky. I was happy. Did that moment have purpose or meaning? I don’t know. I think that emotions like happiness and love and bliss are like steam that rises from a pot when the pot finally gets hot enough. They just rise up when we have the right mix of experience in any given moment. We can work to create the right mix, but we can’t really control when happiness will rise up out of the mix.
Purpose and meaning seem more intentional to me. Actions that have purpose often rise up out of deep beliefs about who we are and the way we think the world should be. We are working toward something consciously. Very often happiness can rise up out of that mix, too. The other day two of our youth producers came forward with ideas for their own stories. One wanted to do a piece on mining/fracking and the land in Minnesota. The other is attending a camp this summer for the visually impaired where they play baseball with bats and bases that beep. When they pitched their stories, I was filled with both happiness and purpose. This was why I wanted to do the youth radio thing. I wanted to help young people find their stories and express them in their own creative way. A long held intention was bearing fruit in that moment—and it made me happy.
To my thinking, happiness alone lacks depth and longevity. It is fleeting, a wisp that drifts by in a single moment although the moment can last a long time. I am so curious to know how many hundreds or thousands of people I have worked with or taught over the last three decades. A lot. I usually don’t like to generalize, but I have to say that the unhappiest people I have met had three things going against them.
They thought they had a right to happiness, good relationships, money . . .
They lacked a sense of purpose or meaning in their lives
They had few or no tools to help them sort it all out
When these two combine, unhappiness is the result. I’ve heard a lot of reports and read a lot of stuff about how Americans in general feel they have a “right” to feel good. That is such a crazy thought I can’t even wrap my head around it.
And this is even crazier. Unhappiness has a place in our lives. It is like a fancy machine that shows us where the fish are hiding at the bottom of the lake. (I think I have become a Minnesotan again). Bad feelings guide us to see and understand what is not right with us or our relationships. When I am pissed, angry, depressed, sad, or feeling small, these are my direction finder. If I examine my psyche, I can follow the bad feeling and find the path to put it right.
I remember a Guru once saying that “An unexamined life is not worth living.”
Most often it is through self-examination that we find our purpose and meaning. It is also where we learn about what makes us unhappy and how to take corrective measures.
Sometimes when I am one page into a post like this, the sheer complexity of the topic overwhelms me. My thoughts are flying around. Here is one more generalization that I will make before I quit.
Many unhappy people I have met do not want to change anything in order to increase their happiness quotient. They don’t want to work for it. They just want to get it. Inertia is a powerful thing to overcome. We watch television, play games, sleep, waste our precious time because it is so much easier than taking on the dragon of creative and meaningful pursuit. To have good relationships, meaningful work, and a rich inner life takes persistence and a lot of time exploring, examining, studying, practicing, making mistakes, facing our fears, taking risks . . .
Milt has recently taken up writing poetry. I love it. And what he realized is that this unexpected urge to express himself in this new way is an attempt to strip away the junk that hides his true feeling. He has to strip away the urge to please, the need to get it right, the desire to have the approval of others. I need a bit of that myself. I’m always trying to package things in a way that makes what I am saying more palatable. As a result, it gets kind of a little bit well maybe “niced” up.
Here is a stripped down nugget. If your life lacks happiness OR purpose, get up out of your chair and do something different. A wise teacher once said, “If what you are doing is not working—do anything else.”
I’m not a giant fan of Valentine’s Day—I want to be in love and feel loved every day—but hope you are having a good one!
And to my Valentine–hearts, flowers and the pursuit of happiness . . . I love you.
Do subscribe below and do share. I am really enjoying our conversation about happiness and purpose and love comments, even when you disagree and think I am crazy optimistic about the human race. Thanks.