It isn’t professional achievements or income that make us happy; this is an old idea eloquently reiterated in Caitlin Kelly’s recent blog post, A small, happy life. She refers to a moral recorded elsewhere: “We do not all have to shine.” I agree: it’s not worth spending our lives in constant pursuit of higher achievement. But if happiness is the true glint in the ore, how do we refine it?
Caitlin points to the level of anxiety imposed on us as we strive for status, financial security and, in the case of women, the perfect body. This last pressure also applies to gay men, I’ve found, though I’ve stopped letting it bother me.
In recovering from a history of depression and anxiety, I’ve found it hard to strike a balance between happiness and success. A year or so into my sixth decade I’m still struggling to succeed enough as a writer to make a sustainable income at the thing I do best. Yet without question I’ve only come so far by lowering my expectations and dismissing the burdens other people would place on me. Still, you get nothing from doing nothing. Achievement matters, and it’s only getting harder to carve out a niche.
For a long time I was absorbed in learning to care for myself. But we aren’t islands, none of us. Recently I’ve begun thinking more about giving back to the community that has supported my healing and development. For instance, I recently joined Toastmasters with the aim of becoming a more effective communicator for both my own sake and so that my research, experience and storytelling might benefit more people. I want to become a more ready participant.
Happiness and simplicity must be balanced with responsibility.
Recent psychological research from Stanford University found a distinction between happiness and meaningfulness in people’s lives. Happiness comes from getting what we want and need. But personal satisfaction has nothing to do with meaning. Happiness is rooted in the present while meaningfulness engages with past, present and future. People with meaningful lives have deeper relationships, experience more stress and are more concerned with expressing identity.
This seems to bring us back to the point: “We do not all need to shine.” Maybe not everyone needs a meaningful life. But I wonder.
Obviously, if we always place happiness above responsibility to others, someone will feel the cost. But it’s no more healthy to put others ahead of our own needs and well-being all the time.
I agree with Caitlin that it’s better to derive happiness from simple living than a constant striving to prove ourselves. But I admire the intelligence of scarlet runner beans, their tendrils reaching for the simple achievement of light, photosynthesis and procreation. The best part of my day is often the simple morning ritual of spending time in the garden, doing some yoga and making a pot of tea. I care for my body and mind. It takes some initiative.
But in reality, happiness is not enough. After breakfast I go to my desk. I’ve had to learn how to motivate myself by reshaping stress into a useful tool. As a freelance journalist I build bridges with clients and savour the responsibility of doing a good job. Interacting with others in a useful way, I pursue meaning.
This is responsibility. I’m still working it all out. It’s an essential ingredient.