Yes, I’d buy into the oft-quoted cliché that “happiness is relative.” This is true, because happiness is apportioned subjectively to everyone; because happiness isn’t found outside but from within; because happiness is a personal choice; because, like beauty which lies in the eyes of the beholder, happiness resides in the heart of the rejoicer
But, in our imperfect world, is it possible to find perfect happiness – at least, in a relative sense?
Most people are quick to approach happiness by climbing and striving to satisfy Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – (1) Physiological (food, clothing, shelter, sex); (2) Security or Safety needs; (3) Social and Belongingness needs; (4) Self-Esteem needs; (5) Self-Actualization needs; and (6) Self-Transcendence or Intrinsic Values needs.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is built on the premise that one can satisfy the needs in a hierarchical fashion. Which means that you cannot yet fulfill, say, your social or self-esteem needs unless your physiological or safety needs are satisfied. But, as contemporary researches reveal, people can have relative happiness or satisfaction of the higher needs randomly through life’s different stages. This simply brings to fore two truths: one, that life is in a constant state of becoming or change; and two, that indeed happiness is relative or personal.
In broad terms, I have observed that there seems to have three progenitors of un-happiness or discontentment: (1) human instinct for survival and belongingness; (2) the modern consumerist culture; and (3) one’s past psychological hang-ups or insecurities.
Human survival instinct or mother nature says that you should feel threatened, frustrated, or lonely. The consumerist culture whispers to you: you need more clothes, the latest iphone model, expensive car, good beer, lucrative status, consume more and be like the pretty people on TV. The residues of your guilt-laden past tell you: you’re not that smart, you’re not attractive, you’re not worthy.
In trying to deal – i.e. follow, defy, or overcome – with these sources of un-happiness and discontentment, you are pushed to imbibe a sense of disturbance, insufficiency, and unease. You are driven to get ahead, fix yourself, crave and cling, and even harm. And this may go on and on in a cyclical mode, ad infinitum.
Now, how do we conquer this cyclical un-happiness of striving for more, of unceasing insufficiency?
Let’s try to remember these truths.
On our instinctual feeling of being unsafe, unbelonging or unloved, it is worth embracing the immortal truth that God’s creation is good and that we are completely loved by God. Regarding our consumerist and status-seeking culture, try to consider the fact that what really matters most in life are not the “consumables” but the intangible and lasting values that will even outlive us. Versus our past insecurities and guilt, try to remember that each one of us has been endowed with natural goodness and individual gifts, talents, and free choice – and thus is capable of improving or growing.
Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educationalist, said it profoundly:
“Man, who is an incomplete being and yet conscious of his incompletion, has the inherent potential for completion.”
Being contented and happy with each step of our life journey does not mean giving up on striving. Being contented or “abiding in fullness” is not simply passive acceptance of whatever life offers.
Rich Hanson, in his article in physchologytoday.com, rightly wrote:
“Abiding in fullness doesn’t mean you sit on your thumbs. It’s normal and fine to wish for more pleasure and less pain, to aspire and create, to lean into life with passion and purpose, and to pursue justice and peace. But we don’t have to want for more, fight with more, drive for more, clutch at more. While the truth of futility is that it is hopeless to crave, the truth of fullness is that it’s unnecessary.”
Verily, in sum, happiness is maintaining a good balance between aspiring and not wanting for more, between pleasure and pain, between constantly striving and being always contented.
And where else can we find contentment but in God? As St. Augustine of Hippo once profoundly said:
“Inquietum est cor meum, Domine, donec requiescat in Te (My heart is restless, O Lord, until it rests in Thee).”