Is Happiness the Goal?

“Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.

-Horace Mann

Having come from a place of extreme unhappiness, I am starting to wonder if something that I (and many others) have proclaimed in the past, “all I really want is to be happy,” is really true.  Recently, despite not loving what I do for income, I have been feeling rather content at work, a strange feeling to an anxious soul.  I would equate this unusual (for me) feeling to happiness.  Of course, being my analytical self, I have to find a way to muddle this seemingly simple feeling.  In the past few weeks, I have not been making great progress towards my goals or what I believe is my life’s task (or discovering my life’s task). This feels like an opportunity that I am slowly watching float away. How is it that I can be happy?  Have I been fooling myself over what I really want?

There are plenty of arguments to be made for and against unhappiness, contentedness, and achievement. The clear benefit of unhappiness is that it sparks the person to change something; it can allow a lost person to search for his or her life’s meaning when they may have been content just to let things be with the lack of unhappiness.  However, prolonged unhappiness can be insidious to actually achieving anything; if one does not have his basic needs met, he will often start to self-destruct.  If you find yourself in this situation, I recommend not trying to drown out your sadness with ice cream, video games, or drugs.  Try to recognize why you are unhappy and figure out what you can do to change it.  If it is truly impossible to change your current source of unhappiness, you may need to temporarily adopt a more stoic mindset of contentedness and acceptance.

Contentedness feels like an admirable quality; there is always something positive to be said about the person who always has a smile on their face and is perpetually social.  However, if a person is happy no matter the situation, she is likely to lack the drive to accomplish something meaningful.  If you have enough, then why work to achieve more?  I argue that if you still have hopes and dreams of achieving something, then contentedness (happiness) should not be your primary goal.  Contentedness should be relegated to those fortunate enough to have found and expressed their life’s task for many years.

So if you are still in the stage of life where I argue that contentedness should not be the goal, where should you aim?  As I mentioned earlier, you should work to find your life’s task.  I am far from an expert on the topic, so if you find yourself perplexed, the only recommendation I can give is something I have read time and time again: search for activities that energize you.  Assuming you already know your life’s task and you are actively working towards it, what should your secondary strategy be?  I argue that you should aim for unhappiness minimization while staying vigilant for distraction from your life’s task and contentedness that may stop you from taking action.

The truth is that life will always be filled with highs and lows, but I believe that you will be most productive in steering yourself towards the sober middle ground.  Be honest with yourself to discover what makes you the most unhappy and work to remedy those things.  I believe you will find buying objects will not minimize your unhappiness unless they happen to save you from a major hassle or save some of your precious time.  Remember, cutting things out of your life (unhappiness minimization) will often be much more productive than looking to fill a want (pleasure seeking). Contentedness creeping in is a good sign, but it is also a signal that you probably need to shake things up to keep achieving.

Despite the fact I deify achievement, I do acknowledge it has downsides. Producing great work is always a challenge which can consume the mind with anxiety and doubt over the quality or progress of the work.  This is why finding work that energizes you is imperative.  You can only labor over something you are indifferent over so long before unhappiness and weariness overtake you.

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