In his book, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, philosopher Richard Rorty argued that intellectuals should not spend their time exploring the meaning of suffering and cruelty.
He argued that, with so many people needlessly suffering, trying to define their suffering is wasting time that could be used to end it.
Although I appreciate his pragmatic attitude, I contend that not only are definitions of cruelty worth exploring, but so are meanings of happiness, joy, and what we call “the good life.” Exploring the positive aspects of the human experience is well worth our time, and doing so will ultimately help us reduce cruelty and suffering.
While I was going through the hardest time of my life, I looked frequently to spiritual teachers, self-help books, and therapy to help me to overcome my struggles. Each of these things helped a bit, but it wasn’t until I discovered the field of Positive Psychology that I really started to make positive changes in my life and start to heal.
“It wasn’t until I discovered the field of Positive Psychology that I really started to make positive changes in my life and start to heal.“
At that point in my life, I trusted science much more than spirituality, and I also trusted in my ability to critically read and review scientific literature. Positive Psychology was research on well-being and happiness, and I was severely lacking in both.
So, I started volunteering in the Positive Psychology lab at my university, and I started devouring scientific articles on experiments they were doing to try to answer the question:
What makes us happy?
Some of the answers I got were overblown by the media, some articles totally inflated their findings, and I even read Barbara Ehrenreich’s critique of the Positive Psychology movement, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America, in order to sharpen my critical eye.
Some of the things I learned worked for me, and some of them didn’t. For instance, some psychologists, especially in the beginning of the movement, relentlessly promoted “seeing the bright side,” even going so far as to encourage a slight sense of delusion over coming to terms with hard realities.
For me, no matter how hard I tried, I could never delude myself into thinking things were better than they were. Further, I felt unethical trying to convince myself that things really were good when they weren’t. I felt like I was lying to myself. And I felt like people were lying to others to try and make them feel better about their situations.
Although “seeing the bright side” didn’t work very well for me, many of the other things I learned did.
For instance, psychologists have conducted many studies on “subjective well-being,” self-assessed feelings of happiness that are measured in the moment, not in retrospect. An example of this was a large-scale study done with a cell phone app that rang at random times throughout the day, asking participants what they were doing, who they were with, and how happy they felt in that moment.
They have also done studies over long periods of time, finding that most people are happiest when they are married; their happiness decreases when they have kids; and it doesn’t return to baseline until the kids leave the house!
Further, when they looked at people from around the world with the highest level of life satisfaction, it was consistently found that people with strong and meaningful relationships, people with the most supportive social ties, were the happiest.
The number of social ties didn’t matter, rather the quality of them did. So having a strong connection to friends, family and community was the strongest predictor for happiness.
“Having a strong connection to friends, family and community was the strongest predictor for happiness.”
This finding, which was not just a result of one study but hundreds, was life changing for me. Until that point, I had lived my life largely cutting people out and keeping people at a distance. I thought that once I reached certain goals, or went to France, or went to college, or got older, or got somewhere, life would be great for me.
But I kept getting to these places, these different milestones that were supposed to promise me happiness, and nothing seemed different. I was exactly the same person with the same problems, the same insecurities, just perhaps surrounded by different people or in a different city.
I felt like everything I had been told by my parents, the media, and my culture had been a lie.
A ton of money wasn’t going to buy me happiness (as long as I had enough to provide for my basic needs with a little extra.) Personal success and achievements weren’t going to get my happiness (rather, I learned, the process and personal growth would). Most of all, cutting people out of my life because I told myself I didn’t need them was not going to make me happy.
When I started to heal, I decided to be much more deliberate about my choices. I started to pay attention to my own wellbeing in each moment. I would check myself, stop in the middle of doing something and think, “How am I feeling right now, 1-10?”
My culture had told me for so long that happiness was a goal, the pursuit of an award that was out there. But what I had learned after so many times of reaching a goal and getting to a point “out there” and feeling miserable, was that happiness is about the process.
Having mental and emotional fortitude, having the ability to enjoy life, depended largely on my ability to maintain and nurture strong relationships. Further, happiness is not about the goal, or stuff, or money, or success.
Happiness is in the doing. It’s about building and creating oneself, becoming something by achieving my goals.
Commenting on Foucault’s social theory, Theile wrote, “Humanity must create itself socially, culturally and historically. Like Nietzsche, Foucault understood that the alternative to passive nihilism entailed an artistic perspective.”
“The alternative to passive nihilism entailed an artistic perspective.”
In other words, in order to have meaningful lives, we have to make them meaningful. And we do that by creating ways to see life’s struggles as opportunities for growth.
As I accumulated more wisdom from positive psychology, I started to really take hold of the idea that my life is not going to reach some perfect end or offer a panacea. I realized that what I have are an accumulation of moments, and I want to spend them working to make myself and the world around me better in some way.
Not only did psychological research support my hypothesis that living this way would give me more meaning and happiness, but so did my personal experience. The process became more important than the end. And this approach to life has made me happier, healthier, and better at everything that I do.
So how does this tie back to my original point, that exploring ideas of “the good life” is important? Because what I found, and what many people find when they work on their own mental or emotional wellbeing, is that they need less stuff. They hurt people less. They are more loving.
They go hiking instead of embezzle money because they start to see evidence that spending time hiking actually makes you happier than having millions of more dollars to spend! People start to volunteer and donate their time because they learn that being involved in their communities makes them happier than sitting at a corporate desk all day!
We can work to create the world we want every day that we get up in the morning. And if we’re starting to see that the things that are good for the world are actually good for ourselves, what kind of beautiful coincidence is that? That the things that actually make us feel connected and happy are the things that require the least amount of resources, the least amount of cruelty, and the greatest amount of love?
“If we’re starting to see that the things that are good for the world are actually good for ourselves, what kind of beautiful coincidence is that?”
People have been saying for ages. Spiritual leaders preach this. Hippies were singing it. Jesus said it. But for some reason our cultural messages get diluted and twisted to serve other ends. Yet, if spiritual leaders, philosophers, and scientists are starting to talk like this, I really have hope that these ideas can start to permeate the culture.
The poor aren’t the only people that are looking for happiness.
The rich, the greedy, and the powerful are all looking for it, too. But what a novel and age-old idea that we need to create it, rather than find it, and we do so by living less cruel, more caring lives?