What Do We Mean When We Speak of Happiness?

Is happiness possible?

Yes, if you put into your life a broader set of ingredients than those in the recipe for “success.

But no, if you wish for a steady-state of joy.

Yes, again, if you lead a life with realistic expectations.

Another no if you expect to avoid all knee-buckling episodes of sadness, loss, and disappointment.

The real question is whether (you are) capable of interpreting life in a dimension sufficiently profound to understand and anticipate the sorrows and pains which may result from a virtuous regard for (y)our responsibilities; and to achieve a serenity within sorrow and pain which is something less but also something more than “happiness.

These words of Reinhold Niebuhr emphasize the necessity of finding life satisfaction when the good times stop, since difficulty and tragedy fall to everyone. A sense of equanimity is unsustainable if good luck must always be present. His writing further underlines the often challenging and burdensome pursuit of goals beyond personal needs and desires: the “virtuous ... responsibilities” of which he speaks.

By this phrase, he means our moral obligations to the human community, a world above the gravitational pull of “me.

The author suggests peace of mind is not identical to bliss. He tells us that if you are a generous soul who does his part for others, you can’t assume you will become prosperous or enjoy good fortune. As well, prosperity is no assurance of goodness in any heart.

We search for a “rational” understanding of what it takes to get ahead in life. Meanwhile, we are flooded with personalized messages from people who recognize us as a market for their products. These enticements are distilled into advertising catchphrases directing us along a different path.

Be the best you can be.” “You deserve it,” where it is a treat or a material thing of which you alone will partake.

Some of us want a world in which it, including happiness, is the consequence of hard work and a persistent climb to the top of something undefined: maybe the zenith of our talents, the pinnacle of a pile of money, the summit of luxury, or the apex of recognition.

Too many therefore self-congratulate if they win an office with a glorious view or purchase a beautiful home. Missing is any thought of gratitude.

Gratitude for what? Perhaps thanks for being born at the right time in the right country, having the right teacher or good-enough parents, courageous predecessors who died for freedom, a decent brain, and a serviceable body.

More than a few pat themselves on the back and say, “I earned it.Maybe, but not on their own.

We quantify our values, worshiping numbers as we do religious icons. Ratings, IQ points, class ranks, salary, bank accounts, and the weight we can lift. Me against the competition at work, the company next door, and my classmates.

Advisers of self-promotion propose the creation of an individualized brand to set apart our personality and talent, as if we were each a pair of designer shoes. We diminish ourselves even by use of the word brand, a stamp better applied to things in a department store than a living being.

We have cheapened our value in so doing, underestimated the desirability of qualities like wisdom, kindness, helping, and teaching.

There is much talk about the importance of community and religion, but do we live it? Do the people we know know us beneath the surface? Do we know them? If “getting and spending” is the path to delight, then why don’t we feel satisfied with “enough,” but need to get more and spend more and ascend higher?

Here is another voice:

I cannot help but regret that I did not live fifty or a hundred years sooner. Life is too full in these times to be comprehensible. We know too many cities to be able to grow into any of them, and our arrivals and departures are no longer matters for emotional debauches – they are too common.

Similarly, we have too many friends to have any friendships, too many books to know any of them well; and the quality of our impressions gives way to the quantity, so that life begins to seem like a movie, with hundreds of kaleidoscopic scenes flashing on and off our field of perception – gone before we have time to consider them.

These words come from a 93-year-old journal entry by George Kennan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, diplomat, and scholar. He was 23 when he wrote them in 1927.

Like Niebuhr, this statesman realized the flood of events, information, and technological changes complicate the challenge of figuring out how to live.

If the world was already “too much” in 1927, I cannot map a straight path leading with any certainty to any certain destination today.

The reason, in part, is also because happiness comes in moments most often found when we escape our self-consciousness and embrace without judgment the features of the always moving objects and lives around us.

I mean “moving” in two ways: never static and capable of touching the heart. But the same pleasure or gladness or awe disappears as soon as we push for it.

Choose instead close attention to those details … and the moment expands. Choose some fulfilling work, hobby, calling, or relationship – a transcendent meaning for your life and your actions – and solace arrives unannounced.

If sustained elation is unattainable, extended periods of serenity are achievable in the acceptance of what life permits us.

Still, if you are now struggling to find employment or food or health … someone to touch or simple safety, my words might appear more fitted to a hoped-for future when your concrete circumstances have improved. We are creators of our lives, but also created by events outside of our control except in our reaction to them.

This much I believe. All of us are small creatures soon to vanish, visitors to what we call civilization. We might think of life as a relay race in which we were handed a fragile baton a few inches long at the time of birth.

Such batons are intended to be passed on, but you need enough sustenance, confidence, and strength to be able to do so. You require sufficient attention to your well-being to possess the capacity to offer this invitation to life to those awaiting you. But the self must be recognized as something less than the ultimate end.

We can choose to glorify the baton we carry, making it into an outsized, ponderous symbol of our personal significance or work to improve the conditions of the track on which we speed. If the latter, the baton’s burden will then rest more easily in the hands of the next racer.

Reinhold Niebuhr wrote:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved (fully) in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.


Beneath the quotations are two paintings: Franz von Stuck’s Sisyphus and Jan Davidsz de Heem’s A Still Life Upon a Hard Stone Table in Front of a Stone Wall. They were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

9 thoughts on “What Do We Mean When We Speak of Happiness?

  1. Lots of food for thought, Dr. Stein. Is happiness possible, you ask? Your response makes total sense: “[H]appiness comes in moments most often found when we escape our self-consciousness and embrace without judgment the features of the always moving objects and lives around us.” In other words, the less we focus on ourselves and more on others, the happier we will be. I have found this to be true.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Peace of mind brings me contentment which brings me happiness. Simplicity also brings me contentment…I have what I have and I do not need to be buying a lot of things, which I consider wasteful.


  3. This is so beautiful, and timely. Thank you for writing it.


  4. True and beautiful words.


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