Admittedly, in trying to scour for inspirational insights for this column, I have had a good dose of varying valuations or descriptions what HAPPINESS is all about, ranging from commonplace aphorisms or even slogans to philosophically profound articulations.
But, I like to reckon that all such articulations about happiness that I’ve gathered smack of mere estimations and defy being a precise or comprehensive meaning of happiness. Perhaps, because – as metaphorically stated –
“If beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, happiness can only be found in the heart of the rejoicer.”
Not until I came across this recently published book (September 2022) by Adam Adatto Sandel titled,
“Happiness In Action: A Philosopher’s Guide to the Good Life.”
Sandel is a philosopher, an award-wining teacher who has taught at Harvard University, and an Assistant District Attorney in Brooklyn, New York.
The core of Sandel’s message is: Happiness – being not a mental state or feeling – is not about accomplishing goals but comes from immersing oneself in “activity” for its own sake, and integrating the virtues of self-possession, friendship, and engagement with nature.
Let’s try to unravel Sandel’s thoughts piece by piece.
First, Sandel fires up his preliminary disclaimer that “happiness is not a feeling or mental state.” It’s not a sensation of pleasure or of contentment.
Sandel supports this postulation by tracing the Greek etymology of happiness which is “eudaimonia.” But the literal meaning of eudaimonia is “having a good demon by your side.” Hence, according to Sandel, it suggests “being on a path” or it implies a “mode of activity” rather than a feeling or mental state.
If not feeling or state of mind, what does it mean then to be happy?
“To be happy, in the deepest sense, is to be engaged in activity that speaks to a personal narrative, a story that coheres and give one’s life direction, but also a story that’s unfinished and is in the process of being clarified through encounters with the difficult and unexpected. The most meaningful activity, in this sense, may involve hardship and struggle. As we are engaged in it, we may be stressed or perturbed. And yet, paradoxically, we are also happy,” Sandel explained.
Second, Sandel proceeds to his next thought that if happiness is found in “doing” or immersing in “activity,” the most meaningful activity is that which we do for its own sake – not for our goals’ sake or for money, but simply for the joy or passion of doing it.
“We’re used to thinking of meaningful activity in terms of aiming goals that we imagine will bring us fulfillments: landing a dream job, reaching a personal milestone, getting married, having kids, devoting ourselves to making the world a better place. But goal-oriented activity, no matter how good the goal maybe, is not enough for fulfillment…What we lose in goal-oriented striving is an appreciation for life in its unfolding. We lose a sense for life as a boundless journey in which unexpected encounters, challenges and failures are integral to our character formation and self-discovery,” Sandel argued.
In other words, Sandel avers that “to find true happiness requires keeping in check our goal-driven striving and reorienting our lives to the intrinsic value of the activities that give meaning to our lives.”
Third, alongside activity-oriented (not goal) happiness, Sandel prescribes the integral virtues of “self-possession (or, as I understood it, “owning ourselves or standing up responsibly for ourselves on truth, goodness, justice, love, and other virtues”), friendship, and engagement with nature” as necessary components of real happiness.
Sandel strikingly notes of the paradoxes entwined with self-possession, friendship, and engagement with nature.
“In our frenzied effort to get stuff done, we lose touch with what these virtues really mean. Consider how we tend to equate self-possession with the spirit of ‘leaning in’ – a kind of self-assertiveness in the workplace aimed at having an impact, winning supporters, and climbing the corporate ladder. We lose sight of the ways in which we might stand up for ourselves that have nothing to do with attainment, and that may even involve risking our goals for the sake of dignity.
“Similarly, we easily mistake friendship for alliance. An ally is someone who helps you achieve a goal. But a friend is someone who helps you put your goals in perspective. Consumed by goal-driven life, we find ourselves with many allies, but few real friends. We overlook the kind of friendship that arises from a shared history and that enables us to grow in wisdom and self-understanding in each other’s company.
“Then, when it comes to engaging with nature, we face the immense difficulty of squaring our momentary appreciation of the ‘great outdoors’ with all the ways we try to shield ourselves from nature and to exploit the earth for our purposes. We take pleasure in certain aspects of nature that fit easily with our daily routine, or that strike us as exotic novelties, and turn our backs on the landscapes, forests, lakes, and oceans that we appropriate for industry. What we need to recover is an appreciation of nature as a source of wonder and awe from which we might gain new perspectives on ourselves and our humanity,” Sandel explained.
Lastly, Sandel leaves a corollary thought that “overcoming our goal-driven life is finding a new perspective of time and truly live in the moment.”
Haunted by past disappointments and beset with anxiety about the future, our goal-driven striving presses us to live in constant dissatisfaction with the present.
Sandel, however, argues:
“There is a way out of this anxious looking ahead and dejected looking back, a way in which we can truly LIVE IN THE MOMENT, and come to understand time as more than a sequence of moments that fly by. It requires learning to appreciate life as an ongoing journey – a journey that aims not at a goal, but at the ongoing commitment to bring one’s self, standing by friends, and engaging with nature.”
Profound thoughts, no doubt. Truly, life – and happiness – are ongoing journeys (not a destination), a constant state of becoming. Seize the moment – it will never return!