Is Happiness Necessary For Living A Worthwhile Life?
Are You Happy?
What a silly question. Or is it? This illusive word “happy” conjures up a picture of smiles and laughter. Can you be always happy? What is real happiness? The motivation gurus will swear that everyone must be happy. Happiness is a positive mental attitude, they would declare. And a positive mental attitude is the gateway to success in life. I don’t think life is so simple. Another question. Is happiness necessary for living a worthwhile life?
There are so many external factors that can spoil our day. Not only that, disaster may strike us at any time. Danger is lurking at every dark corner. Terror strikes when we are least expected. How then can we be happy all the time? To me, happiness is not the only determinant factor for a successful life. Here again, semantic. What is a successful life? Not plenty of money, for that matter. A successful life means living a meaningful life, a worthwhile life. Living a worthwhile life is the mission in life.To live a worthwhile life doesn't mean we must be happy all the time. Happiness is a bonus in life.
By the way, this article is not a philosophical treatise or a religious sermon, or a presentation by a master motivation guru. It is just my two-cents’ worth of personal musing.
Happiness Is A Conditioned Feeling
Happiness depends solely on the external conditions that make us happy. Without these happy external conditions, happiness does not exist. We feel happy only when something external makes us feel happy. By the way, one very special group of people can feel happy without any apparent reason. Crazy people! Visit a mental asylum and look around the inmates there. Some will be smiling away, others happily laughing away! To these unfortunate people, they don’t need external factors to feel happy. It’s all in their state of mind. But for us “normal” people, if we are happy in this manner, then we say we are just day-dreaming.
Happiness is a conditioned state of mind. This I mean, that there must exist, a happy external precondition which will make our mind want to be happy. Whenever some external factors fulfil our desires or wishes, we will instantly feel happy. Because of this conditioned factor, happiness is subject to the law of diminishing returns, which states that the effect from such condition will diminish in time. Take for example, when the hungry man sees food, he will immediately feel happy, and he will continue to feel happy while consuming the food. Give him some time, his happiness subsides. This is most apparent in the behavior of a drug addict. Since happiness is a conditioned state of mind, happiness cannot last continuously forever. We have to continuously chase after those external factors in order to feel happy all the time. Because of this, we are going to be very disappointed because happy external factors cannot be in our favor forever. Take an example, if our loved ones are suffering or someone we love dies, can we still be happy at that point in time? If we can still be happy, then we are absolutely crazy!
A More Realistic Alternative To Happiness
There is however, a more realistic alternative for living a worthwhile life. I do not refute the fact that being happy is better for our lives. If you are one of those lucky ones who is always happy and always associating with happy events, then congratulations to you! Keep it up. But in the real world, life is not like that. Actually, the “happiest” people are those who are able to ride smoothly along the crests and troughs of the waves of life. Just like the expert surfers. Here the term “happiest” is used to denote the feeling of more than happiness, a state of perfect balance or equanimity.
Now let me elaborate on the subject of “worthwhile” life. A happy life is good. But since it is almost impossible for us to be happy all the time, life will not be happy at times. When we are not happy, there will be all other negative feelings following through if we do not check our feeling of being not happy. We are not happy because we do not get what we want, or we experience that which we do not want; or both happening to us. For an average normal person, if this feeling of sadness is prolonged, it would degenerate into all sorts of negative feeling, such as self-pity, resentment, aversion, and escalate into greed and hatred, slowly but surely turn into a self-destructive state of mind. This person will not be able to live a worthwhile life, let alone a happy one.
The Serenity Prayer
The Right Approach To Life
The right approach to live a worthwhile life is this. Please enjoy the happiness when occasions arise. This is easy and breezy. Now the big challenge is how to deal with those moments when life delivers nasty blows at us. The initial reaction is “why me?” Answer : “Why not!” Life doesn’t owe us anything. The world doesn’t owe us anything either. We just exist in this world. When difficulties hit us, we ought to know, “This is natural.” Our lives are just like the waves, the ups and downs, and after a while, in the end, when the waves reach the shore, they disappear. Life is just like that. We need to see this reality, the duality of life. Then we need to accept this duality. Realising this is the first step. Acceptance of what comes to us in life is the second step. The final step is to respond wisely to the vicissitudes of life’s events.
The way to live a worthwhile life amidst the chaos is vividly expounded in this famous “Serenity Prayer” authored by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) which was adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous, and printed in posters of every imaginable design and size around the world. I, too, had bought a poster version as a present for my doctor in appreciation for his good work. You can see it on the right.
This is the Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
Whether you believe in God or not, it doesn’t matter. The message is a universal axiom. The most important message is in the third sentence : “And wisdom to know the difference”. The wisdom to know the difference is the crux of worthwhile living. Once we can come to terms with things that we cannot change, we will have peace in our inner self. There will be no more complaint, no more aversion, no more resentment, no more hatred, no more greed, and no more unhappiness. Why?
The Wisdom To Acknowledge And Accept
We get upset and unhappy over things and situations because they are not the way we want them to be. Many factors may cause this imbalance, many of them beyond our control. When situations are beyond our control, the worst reaction to them is to be upset. This will not solve anything as we already have no control over the specific situations. It is by bad habit and the lack of wisdom to knock our heads against the wall. Since the situations are beyond our control, a better option is to walk away, or if we cannot, then simply to accept this fact and live with them, come what may.
I am writing this from my personal experience. Even right now I have to live with situations that I don’t like. Circumstances are such that they are beyond my control, and I cannot walk away from them. If I were to get angry with resentment and self-pity, the only person who suffers more will be me. I have learned to be a little bit wise to diffuse the situation. Accept that these situations cannot be changed, at least for the time being, and be at peace with them and live with them, minus the negative feelings.
When we come to terms with difficult circumstances, a great feeling overwhelms us; the feeling of calm and peace fill our hearts and minds. We experience an equanimous feeling, at peace with whatever conditions that beset us that we cannot change. Pure acceptance. When we reach this stage of the wisdom to discern the difference, we will be able to live a worthwhile life, embracing life with all the happiness together with the not-so happy events. This is the wisdom to acknowledge and accept.
The Wisdom To Let Go
There are three mental poisons that cause us unhappiness. We want, we don’t want, and we don’t know. We want things that make us happy, and if they are not present, we are unhappy. We don’t want things that make us unhappy, and if they are present, we are unhappy. We don’t know how to respond wisely to the first two poisons, and as such we are always unhappy. We cling to all these negative reactions and we experience negative and sorrowful feelings. We need to have the wisdom to “let go” of all these negative reactions, let go of all our mental burdens, then there will be freedom to live a worthwhile life. Sometimes circumstances prevent us from being happy, but we have a choice of not feeling unhappy; just let go and accept with grace. Give ourselves some space to breathe. It will come to pass, eventually.
May you be happy, and be able to have the “wisdom to know the difference”, and to live a worthwhile life, including all the happiness.
Copyright © Justin Choo. All Rights Reserved.
The Secret To Happiness
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© 2014 Justin Choo
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