Moving beyond the pursuit of happiness
We grow up being told to find our fairytale, to pursue happiness, to attain perfect pleasure. But what is happiness without meaning? Psychologist Viktor Frankl once noted, “It is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’”
More often than not, I aspire to “happiness” to a fault — whether that means staying out until 2 a.m. on a Friday night to maintain the perfect social life, or binge-studying to maintain the perfect grades, or trying to meticulously plan out my future so I will end up with the perfect job, the perfect life, the perfect everything.
Yes, when put into words, it becomes obvious that this search for perfection is limiting and ineffective, but living in an environment focused almost exclusively on individual excellence makes seeking anything other than perfection more easily said than done.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly fun to be successful — I’m not arguing otherwise. But seeking perfection leaves me pretty empty at the end of the day. Something is missing, hidden far beneath the monotonous quest for pleasure, praise and precision. Something simply is not right.
Of course, a “well-lived” life looks different for different people — some will thrive in the bustle of New York City and others will blossom in the prairies of Montana. Some will delight in the joyful noise of five children running through the house, while others will find their peace in solitude. But I firmly believe there is one thing that unifies each of us, one thing to which our diversities and individualities are intrinsically rooted: the drive to find love and meaning in this life.
The human heart so deeply yearns to be filled to the brim with love, to spill over with joy and grace and compassion, to be blessed with the freedom to find happiness, but also to know we will be carried through the inevitable storms to come.
Happiness comes and goes in waves, but it seems to me true compassion sticks with us through the good and the bad, forgiving us in our most prodigious humiliations and empathizing with us when we feel all else is lost.
I know, it sounds cheesy and clichéd, but maybe the life I am in search of rests in this: to be filled with compassionate reverence, to graciously attune myself to all that surrounds me, to embrace each moment with deepest gratitude and a sense of complete wonder.
I’ll admit, some of these truths may always be beyond my grasp. But by simply looking up, by lifting my eyes to the beauty of this world and by pushing beyond my preoccupations, I hope I can get just a step closer to my target. Thus, my journey begins with a proposal as simple as this: to find the courage to look up from myself and to delight in something much more glorious.
Peyton’s column runs biweekly on Wednesdays. She can be reached at email@example.com.