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Tag Archives: Aristotle

Are You (Truly) Happy?

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 depression” 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 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

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.

Enjoyment

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.

Fulfillment

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.

 
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Posted by on November 28, 2019 in The Creative Life

 

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The Two Systems

I’ve decided that my purpose as a writer is not to persuade readers to my position on some topic, as much as it is to inspire (or at least provoke) creative thinking around things that matter. After all, my blog is devoted to contemplating creative change across culture, and persuasion is more about converting others to your beliefs than it is getting them to conduct a reality-check on their own.

So, I want to return to something I wrote about two years ago, and which, in the intervening time, has become even more relevant. It has to do with the paradoxical tension between two great systems that interact in every culture, in every community, and in each one of us. Our fear of conflict, which is probably fueled by ignorance concerning the creative potential in tension, along with our lazy preference for simplistic and dogmatic solutions, too frequently motivates us out of zones where genuine transformation might occur.

We feel almost a moral obligation to come down on one side or the other, calling one system good and the other evil. Of course, such judgment automatically makes enemies of anyone who might favor the side opposite to ours. With some urgency, then, I want to make the point that romanticizing one system and renouncing the other only shifts an otherwise creative tension into a mutually destructive antagonism. Western culture has been particularly good at that, and the absolute (fixed and irreconcilable) dualism in the metaphysical foundations of our worldview has worked itself up to the surface in an exploding taxonomy of neurotic disorders and sectarian movements through the centuries.

My objective is to show the extent in which the two systems are inextricably involved in our culture, our politics, our religions, our relationships, and our personalities. We might even look outside the specifically human realm and observe these two systems interacting in nature and throughout the cosmos as a whole. This was the great insight of the sixth-century BCE Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu whose Tao Te Ching is a profound reflection on the dance of Yin and Yang across the manifest universe.

My word-tags for these two systems are “communion” and “supremacy,” and the forces they hold in tension are the power of love and the love of power, respectively. Already we might feel ourselves leaning into one and away from the other depending on our temperament, gender, morality bias, and situation in life. And while I want to respect our individual preferences, my real purpose here is to open the frame wide enough so we can appreciate their interdependency as creative forces in ourselves and society at large.

Two SystemsLet’s first look at the particular values that orbit together in each of the systems, and then I’ll come back to the term at the center of my diagram. Supremacy, or the love of power, emphasizes influence and responsibility, competition and virtue. Communion, or the power of love, places a stronger accent on connection and relationship, cooperation and equality. Notice how the terms in my diagram are arranged in such a way that they comprise two arcs, coming so close as to almost merge, then turning away from the center-line and farther into values more obviously identified with one side or the other.

We need to be careful not to break this tension and push everything into an absolute dualism, as has happened so many times in the West. For instance, while it may seem obvious that “competition” is the complete opposite of “cooperation,” in reality (just as Lao-Tzu noticed) there’s is a little of each in the other. Some of our most challenging and enjoyable games put us in a contest where we must cooperate with an opponent in order to compete for a goal. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to win, but we can’t win unless we play by the rules and respect our opponent as a partner in the process.

The opposition of “virtue” and “equality” is one that has swung Western politics for thousands of years. For their part, the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle leaned more toward virtue, which they defined as excellence or outstanding strength of character, rather than equality and the degenerate forms of democracy it tended to produce. Absolute equality amounts to a torpid neutrality where the insistence on sameness drowns out and dissolves away anything unique, special, or outstanding that might bring honor to one and not the rest.

Some feel that this push for equality in everything today is flattening out the virtues of the “American character,” effectively neutering the self-reliant and pioneering frontier spirit that made our nation great. But then again, as pioneers became settlers, and settlers became colonists, the exploitation of inequality (of whomever didn’t have land or a gun or a penis) did as much to make our nation as our supposed virtues. This only points up once again the need for balance.

The two systems of supremacy and communion interact as complements to each other, one tempering the potential excesses of the other, and both necessary to the health of the whole – of the whole shebang (cosmos), a whole culture, a whole community, a whole partnership, and a whole personality. While each system arcs away from the other and into its singular values, there is a point where they both come so close as to almost fuse into one. I wonder if our tendency toward extremes, driving us to neurotic breakdowns and dogmatic orthodoxies, is a symptom of our idiocy when it comes to understanding and cultivating genuine trust.

What I have in mind in using this term ranges from trusting others to trusting ourselves, having confidence in the creative process and surrendering to the provident mystery within, between, and beyond us all. This doesn’t have to come together in a formal religion, or even as belief in the existence of a god “out there.” But however we work it out, however we manage (or mismanage) the balance of power and love, that is our religion.

 

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