The Search for Happiness
Over lunch with a friend, the topic of happiness came up. He was trying to puzzle out what exactly is this happiness that people talk about and are apparently searching for. Part of what sparked it was a broken relationship wherein the other person left saying, “I’m not happy with the relationship.” There was no real explanation for that “not happy”, even when pressed. Everything was vague. She couldn’t give shape to the happy she wasn’t finding. So how do we know what happy is when we find it?
The last couple days, I’ve been thinking about piecing together some talks for my high school about the search for happiness, and the one thought that I keep running into is one that C. S. Lewis offered long before I ever started thinking about it: if you aim for happiness, you won’t get it. Not really. You have to aim at something else, and then you just might be “surprised by joy”.
Our culture seems to be driven to get happiness, which usually means to get whatever we want. I’m tired of hearing about him, but he does make a fabulous illustration… Michael Jackson is a picture of what happens when you get everything you want, and that’s not a particularly pleasant picture. Getting what you want, or what you think you want, only seems to cause the hunger to grow larger. The way that this culture seems to go after getting happy is almost an addiction. We build up a sort of tolerance and need more. It doesn’t work. And the withdrawal symptoms can look just as bad. Imagine what it would look like to place your average Joe in a room for a weekend without any of his usual means of amusing himself. What would that look like for yourself? I must admit that I get anxious imagining myself in that position, and I try to do it somewhat regularly.
We have to aim at something different. What we think we want doesn’t actually make us happy in the long run. It even manages to make us less happy over time because something in us withers. There are certainly psychological and spiritual theories on what that withering piece of us is, but I’ll leave off for the moment simply because I want to highlight Lewis’ point: happiness, or in his case, joy, is a byproduct of something else, something greater. I would argue that real happiness should be a byproduct of true spiritual growth. When we grow, we will find ourselves, overall, happier, even if the path to get there was not in the direction of happiness and even if it wandered through patches that looked anything but happy.
We don’t get happy. Unless we weren’t intending to.