The Purpose of Happiness
I’ll admit to being just a wee bit clever with the headline.
That is, I’m mushing together two different happiness threads. First, I want to share some current thoughts on why cultivating individual and systemic well-being is so vital. Second, I’ve had some personal experiences and observations on Sonja Lyubomirsky‘s “Happiness Activity No. 10” — committing to your goals, or, having a purpose.
Why Happiness Matters
There are, of course, a multitude of reasons why happiness matters, including sounder health, greater creativity, increased compassion, more personal success,and better parenting. Perhaps because I’ve had a grand baby living in my house, I often think of Christine Carter’s book Raising Happiness and her emphasis on parents “putting on your own (happiness) oxygen masks first” to raise compassionate, joyful children. Obviously, I want to do my part to help my grand daughter become a compassionate and joyful person.
Then there’s Aristotle’s quote: “Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” That is, all our other purposes in life are really in the service of happiness for ourselves and others. Happiness is purpose in capital letters.
But what really made me want to write on this topic were three lines from a book I bought at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York last month. The book is Happiness by Thich Nhat Hanh. It contains a variety of mindfulness practices to “fully enjoy life’s gifts.” In the intro, the Buddhist monk writes, “Every step and every breath can be an opportunity for joy and happiness. Life is full of suffering. If we don’t have enough happiness on reserve, we have no means to take care of our despair.”
A few days later, the urgency of cultivating both personal happiness and a societal Gross National Happiness paradigm struck me as I listened to a National Public Radio story on how warmer temperatures that come with climate change could lead to spikes in violence and fighting.
We have to figure out a better way to cope, and soon. Here’s a goal: for the impossibly big stuff (climate change) and the smaller griefs (like the one I share below), let’s substantially build our happiness reserves.
If history predicts the future, happiness may well be key to positively and collectively adapting to change. According to evolutionary psychologist David Lykken — one of the early modern happiness researchers — happiness is an “adaptive difference” that during early human history at least “increased the chances of survival … improved one’s chances of maintaining and profiting from group membership (and) gradually separated our ancestors from the also-ran. ” (Happiness, p. 14)
Perhaps, happiness will once again be a key determinant of human survival.
Purpose as a Happiness Strategy
Unlike our ancient ancestors, we can benefit from researchers like Lyubomirsky and their guide books for our individual happiness journeys. In The How of Happiness, Lyubomirsky details 12 happiness activities; number 10 focuses on goals.
She starts that chapter with a quote from Australian psychiatrist W. Beran Wolfe, written in 1932: “If you observe a really happy man you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his son, growing dahlias in his garden, or looking for dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert.” Or, as Lyubomirsky more succinctly put it, “Find a happy person, and you will find a project.” (p. 205)
My inspiration on this topic was closer to home, and very 21st century — a walk several weeks ago with my 15 month-old granddaughter Madeleine. She and I were returning from the neighborhood labyrinth about a mile and a half away. Though she contently rode to the labyrinth in her stroller, on the way back, she started fussing. For some reason, I asked her if she wanted to help push.
Boy, did she. It was hot and we had a long way to go, but that little girl was determined to “push” the stroller all the way home (with grandma’s help, of course). Because I knew she was exhausted, I tried repeatedly to convince her to quit pushing and relax in the passenger seat. No way. She had a purpose, one that clearly fed her happiness in that moment. Though she is too young to articulate goals, if she could, I’m sure she would have said her goal was to push the stroller to our front door. In fact, she diligently and doggedly pushed for more than a mile. Looking down at her little body working so hard was a poignant sight — and a lesson in the value of purpose.
Lyubomirsky cautions that no happiness strategy will resonate with everyone, and that is true even within my immediate nuclear family. Unlike Madeleine, her grandfather (my husband Bob) is not goal oriented. He always has many projects going — he’s just not in a hurry to finish anything. Earlier in our marriage, Bob’s lack of purpose upset me. I’d press him to articulate his goals, and he would panic because … he basically doesn’t have any. Yet, he’s content and happy. Part of my lifelong learning was to recognize that he is who he is, and one of my goals should definitely not be to change him. Similarly, Madeleine has always been a determined and focused little being; I wouldn’t even dream of trying to change her!
As for me, purpose not only helps define my most satisfying days, it is also a reliable coping strategy* when life isn’t working the way I’d like — for example, dealing with the smaller grief I mentioned above. Just a few days ago, my beautiful daughter and granddaughter — who came to live with us when the baby was only five weeks old — moved to a distant state. The move is a good thing, and definitely meets my daughter’s need to have a purpose (teaching university students). I’m happy for them. Nonetheless, I was very, very sad when the moving van drove away. Everywhere I looked, I saw memories of Madeleine and our precious year and a half together.
Fortunately, I also saw projects everywhere. I cried awhile, and then tackled my oppressively messy clothes situation. Two days later, I had one bag of clothes to donate to an artist friend who will re-purpose the material beautifully; two large trash bags filled with clothes to donate to the Goodwill; one trash bag filled with items that just needed to be thrown away; and a much, much neater closet and dresser. Best of all, I felt better. This project helped me say goodbye to the past and turn toward the fun times my granddaughter and I will share in the future. It was soothing, and settling.
Since June, I have co-facilitated a happiness study group designed to help each participant determine which which strategies from The How of Happiness will best make each of us happy. It’s been clear to me for some time that spreading happiness is one of the most fundamentally important purposes of my life. Now, I also appreciate just how much having a purpose and pursuing my goals deepens my own happiness. It is comforting knowledge.
* Developing coping strategies for challenging times is another of Lyubomirsky’s recommended happiness activities.