We’re supposed to be pursuing happiness in this liberal democracy of ours, or at least have the right to pursue it. We don’t have to, if we’d rather not. We also have the right to be unhappy. The choice is finally ours.
I think our problem is not that we don’t want to be happy, but that we’re confused over what happiness really is. What does it mean to “be happy”?
We’ve been duped by the advertising industry into equating happiness with pleasure – the buzz, the rush, the kick, the tingle. Pleasure stimulates a reward pathway in our brain that can never get enough, which means if an ad company can link their product with our craving for the buzz, rush, kick, or tingle, we’re going to buy – and keep paying until we’re either addicted or depressed, and maybe both. What could be called “consumer exhaustion” is the apocalypse for advertisers and Big Business, and they work hard to keep us in the game.
With a little reflection, however, it’s not hard to discern the difference between pleasure and happiness. Happiness isn’t merely enduring pleasure or a steady, life-long dopamine rush. It doesn’t always come with the buzz, kick, or tingle – and quite often it’s absent these altogether.
Neuroscience has revealed that happiness flows along a different pathway than pleasure, depending more on serotonin than dopamine. Big Pharma and drug doctors have managed to turn this discovery into huge profits as well, hooking millions on the lure that more serotonin in their brains will magically make them happier. It doesn’t work that way. While pleasure is a product of our body and brain’s biochemistry, with what’s going on between nerve cells, happiness has more to do with our engagement with reality as persons.
The “synapse” of greater interest here is what presently separates us from three things: the grounding mystery deep within ourselves, the vibrant world all around us, and the evolutionary ideal of our higher human nature.
I’m going to name these dimensions of happiness contentment, enjoyment, and fulfillment. Each dimension might be considered a “type” of happiness, but I’d rather keep them together as a dynamic unit – as the three facets or faces of true happiness. We can focus on one or another of these facets, but losing sight of their unity could lead us into obsession and inevitable disappointment. Let’s spend some time on each dimension of happiness, and then bring them all together for the full picture.
Contentment is the feeling that we have all we really need and all is well. While it may seem synonymous with satisfaction, contentment isn’t just about having our needs satisfied. It goes deeper than that. I connect it with our “grounding mystery,” referring to that deeper reality supporting our self-conscious experience from within by a physical, living, and sentient animal nature.
Our “first nature” is where the journey of life begins. In the best of all possible worlds and a perfect family, our body was able to settle into reality and relax into being. An inner clearing of peace and calm opened up inside us, allowing awareness to very naturally orient outward to the world around us. Our inner life became a place of solitude and quiet reflection, a deep center of strength and resolve, as well as a refuge of solace and surrender.
When we can simply be in this moment, without wanting for anything but resting entirely in the support of our grounding mystery, we are profoundly happy – even in the absence of emotions and the running script of our chattering thoughts.
This is nirvana, the placid and undisturbed (literally “no wind”) condition of a still pond. This is happiness as contentment.
Hearing the words side-by-side – contentment and enjoyment – confirms their distinct connotations. If contentment is inner peace, enjoyment is more about our relationship to the world around us. When we are content, we want for nothing. When we are enjoying something, we tend to want more – not crave it or desperately need it like an addiction, but to stay with it because we find it amusing, intriguing, interesting, or inspiring.
Enjoyment probably comes closest to pleasure and is typically where our confusion starts. Relating to what’s around us involves our senses and sensations – how this, that, and all of it makes us feel. And aren’t our feelings encoded upon the primary dichotomy of pain and pleasure? It’s an easy mistake. And it’s just where the advertisers find their opportunity.
The difference becomes more clear when we acknowledge how many times our greatest enjoyments in life ride in the balance of pain and pleasure, of sacrifice and bliss.
Our true enjoyment is not merely in how something “makes us feel,” but in what it means to us, how precious, serendipitous, and grace-given it is.
I won’t go very deep into it here, but anyone could guess what consequences for enjoyment are brought into the picture when we lack contentment. The emptiness within is not cultivated as an inner clearing for surrender and repose, but is instead a void that must be filled. When we look to the world around us for things to devour – food and drink, possessions and relationships, titles and achievements, even religion and its god – whatever joy we may find in gulping them down will be short-lived. It will also be followed by resentment, which is the very antithesis of enjoyment in its true sense.
Some Christians speak of “a god-shaped hole” at our center, which turns god into a commodity that churches can peddle to consumer-believers. But again, we will never get enough of a god we have to swallow.
The third facet and dimension of genuine happiness is named fulfillment. As with the other terms, this one has gotten lost in our contemporary pursuit of the buzz, the rush, the kick, and the tingle. In popular culture, “fulfillment” is the ultimate feel-good. If something isn’t fulfilling, we are excused for putting it aside and looking elsewhere for “the real thing” – what the ads promise in exchange for our money.
As I’m using it, however, fulfillment is associated with capacity, completion, and realizing our true potential as human beings. In this sense, fulfillment is always “above and ahead” of us, orienting us to what we are still in the process of becoming. We get tastes of it when we dig deeper into ourselves, step outside our comfort zone, and leap for the ring just out of reach.
The history of our species is the long story of latent talents, dormant powers, and “godly” virtues coming awake, driving our further progress in the direction of a more humane and self-actualized human being.
Ultimately – and fulfillment is about what is ultimate or “highest” – this facet of happiness doesn’t let us just settle for mediocrity and the half-assed life. Many of us do live this way, of course, but the fact that we possess an inner drive and aim (what Aristotle called “entelechy”) which seeks our self-actualization helps explain why we are always living just short of being truly happy.
It’s likely our existential insecurity (i.e., our lack of contentment) that motivates us to grab on and grip down on life rather than whole-heartedly enjoy it, which attachment then holds us back from the fulfilling and liberated life that could be ours.
So here we are, on this “Happy Thanksgiving” day. If we are gathering with family and friends at a table, perhaps we can take a few moments to contemplate whether we are truly happy. We can indeed be thankful if we are, since genuine happiness is not a solo project but a conspiracy involving countless others and some good luck besides.
And if we’re not so happy right now, then we have an idea about where to begin.