The fact that happiness is such a dominant theme in modern life reveals two significant things about us: (1) that the progression threshold of human evolution at this point in time is firmly stationed on the pivotal questions of personal identity, meaning, and purpose; and (2) the probability that we are stuck in this stage and might not find our way through to what’s next.
We’ve tried everything – physical austerity and intoxication, social attachment and self-isolation, new identities and otherworldly aspirations, more money and a fresh set of friends – but none of it can make us lastingly happy. Many are giving up and checking out, or else doubling down and selling our souls to some huckster with a promise to deliver on our desires – someday soon. We are ready to do anything, believe anything, in the hope it will make us happy at last.
I make a case in this blog for seeing happiness not as a hopeless pipe dream, but neither as an individual’s ultimate pursuit in life. It has its place in the larger vision of human destiny, just not as a final destination. To suggest that there is more to life than happiness does not imply that happiness is unimportant, or that its pursuit is necessarily selfish and “sinful” (as some counterfeit religions claim).
Happiness is important, even essential to human fulfillment, but there’s something beyond it that a human being desires even more.
This post is another opportunity to clarify “the larger vision of human destiny” I have in mind. While the framework is mine, the gestalt of this model itself is something that’s been developing in the Sophia Perennis (the perennial and transcultural tradition of spiritual wisdom) for thousands of years, providing the insights, principles, and ideals that have inspired and informed many of the most significant revolutions of consciousness in human history. Let’s take a walk through the illustration above and try to make sense of it.
You will notice that “happiness” is included in this larger vision, but it shares space with two other human desires: health and harmony. Each of these three human desires is color-coded to align with a key dimension of our human nature and experience. Health is most basic and aligns with the animal nature of our body, which is a physiological organism embedded in a physical environment. Happiness aligns with the personal (or “second”) nature of our ego, as a centered self inside a socially constructed world. And Harmony, which represents the something more alluded to earlier, aligns with our spiritual nature as grounded in being (soul) and one with the universe (spirit).
Now, just about everything is packed into that last paragraph, so after setting the elements in place, it will make more sense if we put it all in motion. The upper-left of my diagram illustrates the three dimensions of human nature – animal, personal, and spiritual – in a way that shows their distinctions while appreciating their dynamic unity.
Body, being most basic and first on the scene, is situated at the core. Inwardly we are rooted in the unconscious depths of instinct and metabolic urgency, while outwardly we depend continually on the provident web of life. Our animal nature desires health – to have energy, strength, and composure, with a corresponding capacity to grow, learn, and adapt to our surroundings. Our fuller definition of health, then, is psychosomatic, as a sentient (mind-body) organism.
Ego, however, is not a natural formation like the body, but a social construction that exists only in the storylines and on performance stages of interpersonal relationships where our personal identity is “owned” and managed. “I” (ego) am not my body; “I” have a body – which presupposes a differentiation of consciousness from the sentient body into a separate center of self-conscious possession and agency.
Out and around ego is the narrative construct of a world, also made of stories and symbols and symbol systems. However, just as it is more accurate to say that a tree is wood rather than “made of” wood, so we should say that our world is a narrative enclosure and not merely made of stories. It’s in this social space of shared meaning and competing interests that ego pursues personal happiness – to be seen, to belong, to be loved.
This happens to be where a large number of people today, as moderns, feel as if we are lost in a wilderness exile. Society keeps filling our screens with advertisements about what we can’t be happy without, convincing us that whatever we’ve got going on is not quite enough. Even religion, for “god’s sake,” has been reformed around this modern experience of homelessness and estrangement, promising true believers an everlasting happiness that awaits them in the next life – out of the body, away from Earth, on the other side.
Ironically, while our insecure ego is what goes for the lure of this pie-in-the-sky promise, it’s our soul, to the degree we are in the process of waking up and breaking free, that is motivating many of us these days to leave religion and its dead convictions for something more.
When serving as a church pastor I witnessed many situations where this spiritual frustration (as I only later came to understand it) would press and fracture the neat constructs of religious identity, causing doubt, anxiety, and exhaustion in those who were trying desperately to hold it together, as their higher nature was seeking to break free and shake off the chains of orthodoxy.
The shift from an ego-centered life to a spiritually oriented one entails a paradoxical dynamic, whereby consciousness drops away from the center of our separate self and into its deeper ground, as soul, as it simultaneously leaps beyond our personal identity to join (and add to) the higher wholeness of matter, life, and consciousness (the universe), as spirit. While it may seem as if the “drop” and the “leap” are moving in different directions, the paradox lies in the fact that dropping into being is what sets us free to live in harmony with everything else.
Soul and spirit are thus paradoxically identical, as the inward-contemplative-mystical and outward-transpersonal-ethical dimensions of spirituality.
They are not metaphysical “code words” for our ego or personality, nor are they parts of our human nature that we possess, own, and control. The subject-object logic inherent to the very existence of the ego as storyteller and roleplay actor can be employed only metaphorically when speaking of the “ground” and “universe” as dynamic poles of the harmony we seek.
Because we are so desperate and relentless in our pursuit of happiness, we end up only generating unhappiness and suffering instead. If we could see that happiness is not ultimately what we desire, but is merely penultimate to our truest aspiration of living in harmony with others and all things, we would simply be happy – without even trying.