I think about that question more and more it seems. Or perhaps what I am really asking are the meta-questions – “What is the meaning of happiness?” and, “Does happiness, in and of itself, have meaning? By meaning I mean value.
It has become increasingly more interesting to me that the most free, affluent, technologically advanced nation in human history is apparently so miserable that it manages to consume the vast majority of the world’s anti-depressant supply. We don’t only take more per capita than most nations, we take WAY more which begs the question – why?
The answer is complex to be sure, however, I believe there exists what could be considered a core of responsible factors that point to our preoccupation with (and our distorted concept of) happiness.
1. We have come to so equate happiness with the material that nothing else will do. We live in an economy that values consumption above all else. After 9-11, then president Bush’s advice to the public was to “shop.” No kidding.
2. We take all our affluence and privilege for granted with little to no thought of just how phenomenally fortunate we really are. If you were born in America in the last hundred years, you won the lottery. But somehow, you don’t realize it.
3. Our dogged pursuit of material wealth has robbed us, as a nation, of our spirituality. That is the price we have paid and it is the highest price there is. The Divine that dwells within each of us has been traded for a designer bag, a new car, the latest fashions. Trouble is, all these things are impermanent. Longing for them and attachment to them is the basis for most human suffering.
4. We don’t live in the present. We spend nearly all of our time preoccupied with the past and the future but the truth is, neither one is real. The moment we are in is the only one there is or will ever be. Usually by the time we finally realize this, we are at the end of our lives.
We have built our entire existence around wanting, getting, tiring of what we got, then wanting and getting more – never fully content and happy in the moment we are in. We believe that we must be happy but never are because of what we wrongly believe happiness actually is. Rather than striving (and failing) to be happy, we need to be striving for meaning (value) in our lives and that only comes from what we have traded away, the spiritual. When we finally wake up and rightly understand that service to others, peacemaking, benevolence, kindness and compassion are the paths to meaning and we begin practicing these things habitually, then the happiness question need no longer be asked. It will have taken care of itself.