The Next Best Thing to Happiness
I was talking to a friend today about the ups and downs of parenthood and asked her a hypothetical question I’d once mauled to death in my own head: “If, at the moment of your child’s birth, you had the option to sign a no-grief contract at no cost to anyone, granting your precious baby immunity from all fear, pain and sorrow of every kind for the rest of his or her life, would you do it?”
Many parents, surprised by the question, offer an emphatic YES. No questions asked or doubt expressed. What a nice fantasy!
Except…and this is where the question deserves a good mulling. Imagine your child never having suffered, and their offspring being raised by people who have never known fear or pain. Would a population like this likely result in a better world?
What opportunities exist for spiritual growth absent suffering or pain? How would seeds of selfless love or empathy take root and hold under such conditions? How would such sheltered children know the feeling of overcoming? Of supporting? Of being essential to another person or cause?
In the real world, anyone in need of escape from pain and sorrow can achieve and maintain a state of suspended animation indefinitely through various, often illicit means. One can choose to live as a rock, an island, far away and well above the teeming masses of complex fellow human beings. There are many ways to self-medicate, to move off the pain of being part of the human condition.
But what is, or would be the price attached to life lived this way, whether in reality or via our fantasy agreement with some entity behind the curtain? Would we or our children be consistently happier in states in which we are beyond the experience of suffering? Those of us who would sign off on the pretend contract would have no other reason to do so if we didn’t think the act would lead to greater happiness.
Confounding, isn’t it? This is why happiness initiatives, spawned by the noble positive psychology movement, don’t appeal very much to me philosophically. I agree that some of us need to be taught about how to create and maintain happier mental states; but after more than fifty years of thinking things through, the armchair philosopher in me leans more to depth psychology and logotherapy. The famous Auschwitz survivor Dr. Viktor Frankl founded the latter school, which encourages, through self-reflection, a sense of meaning and purpose in life irrespective of age or circumstance. It nurtures hope through belief in one’s self and one’s own purpose, both of which are as likely to be challenged out of us through adversity as much as cultivated via more pleasant ways.
This is why I have come to see happiness as basically the desirable and lovely fruit of circumstance. I perceive hope as activator, coming from a deeper source inside of us. It works with every mental or emotional state, such that even in the face of the losses we fear most, we may yet one day find ourselves reaching out to do marvelous things because hope requires it, turning us away from despair and leading us to places we would never have chosen--but in which we find healing.
Achieving “emotional wellness” (and all that it implies), of which hope plays a major role, is what I’ve settled on as just as valuable, possibly more so than pursuing happiness.
Now when I say that hope is the next best thing to happiness, I really mean it is partner to it, standing next to it as spouses stand beside one another to bring forth marriage. To own both happiness and hope as twin attributes is to bring forth the best possible life in my book. I’m spending some self-directed study time looking at hope with new—er, I mean older—eyes.
I’m afraid the association of the word “hope” with President Obama’s first presidential campaign made it something for too many folks to make fun of and to be critical about. But hope is a living force under no one’s control but our own. Our worldly well-being depends on our collective ability to express it individually in daily life. Which generally we don’t, until and unless we choose to express it personally through our lives, which in spiritual terms is what faith is.
Ah, yet another story for another time…