Originally written in August 2011
The idea of happiness as the goal of life needs some pondering over.
The goal of life should not be happiness. The goal of life should be to make the best of it. One is said to have made the best of life when one is totally satisfied with the way one’s life has been.
Living for happiness in every moment is a recipe for disaster. By self-indulgent living one may be able to get happiness, but that happiness will invariably be fleeting and insecure. That is because that’s the nature of happiness. Secure and lasting – high quality – happiness comes out of doing something worthwhile. Unlike the former, this happiness is more akin to contentment or satisfaction of life which can be lasting. One can be satisfied with life even though in the present moment one may be suffering from some discomfort.
Worthwhile things are those which also include the interests of the community one is a part of. It means genuinely being useful to others, instead of using others. One can use others for one’s happiness and be harmless at the same time, but still that’s not worthwhile living if one is not contributing anything towards the overall well-being of the community.
This is a subtle point. There are many ways in which one can be useful to others (that is, enable collective well-being) without even realizing it. Remaining faithful to one’s spouse is one example of worthwhile living, which happens at some cost to the self, as one has to turn down the prospects of greater (short term) happiness which present themselves from time to time. The payoff of faithfulness is realized in the long run. It won’t be in the form of the happiness one has passed up by not being unfaithful. The happiness of this payoff is of a different kind. It’s in the form of calm and lasting sense of satisfaction of life. The feeling of having lived a good life.
Not being promiscuous before one finds a commitment-worthy partner is also a type of worthwhile living, even though one may not solidly realize it. Because it shows strong will which is, in turn, an indication of reliability. This, apart from giving higher well-being to one’s partner when one has found one, increases the general well-being of the community. For the presence of such strong-willed individuals will enable trust in people. In the society where many people are of loose character, people find it hard to trust others, and tend to be more anxious, and thus, less satisfied.
The first example is indicative of the behavior by which the other’s (one’s spouse) well-being is directly looked after. Whereas in the second example the general well-being of the community is indirectly being contributed to just by being virtuous. But these are mere examples. I used sexual behavior for the examples because sex has closer connection with happiness and suffering than anything else. And what I said there is, of course, not necessarily to be strictly followed as a rule in every situation. The point to be understood is, trying to fill every moment with happiness (that characterized by excitement) for oneself is quite often screwing one’s long term prospect of happy (in the sense of contentment) life.
The good feeling of satisfaction that arises out of worthwhile living is not without a reason. When one lives with due regard to others’ well-being, one is respected and cherished as a person by the community. Being respected is the key to the high quality happiness. One may scoff at it saying it is but selfishness in disguise. But since everyone has an ego, this subtle kind of selfishness is healthy and rather essential, and not bad at all. That one takes on some discomfort for the greater good (of collective well-being), even though at a deeper level it is going to benefit oneself, is altruism at its best.
Having a satisfactory life over a long period of time (not in moment to moment evaluation) is also generally called a happy life. In that sense if one means that the goal of life is to make a happy life then it’s fine. But if the goal-happiness means every moment one has to pounce on what brings one the greatest pleasure, without any regard for anything or anyone else but oneself, that’s a myopic and naive approach to happiness. He who lives like that is in a huge need of good luck.
Direct pursuit of happiness is a narcissistic one. More than being happy, it is important to have a virtuous life. And the happiness it will generate as a by-product will be the happiness like no other.