The limits of happiness

This being human is a guesthouse, writes Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, the 13th century Persian poet. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.

I think Rumi’s right. To be human is to be visited by a stream of experiences, each arising and fading away after the other in a mysterious succession. We know only a little about how to influence the stream. Sometimes we find ourselves able to direct its course by being with certain people, or taking up certain activities, or by being in a place resonant with beauty or with memory. And we can sometimes influence the stream by trying to block it – holding on to sadness, or resentment, or anger through the stories we tell ourselves about life.

But, mostly, to be human is to have a stream coursing through us that arises of its own accord, without our volition. And when we seek to constrain the movement of the stream so that it consistently feels a particular way we also end up having to constrain some portion of our aliveness and freedom. Our fullest humanity comes when, as Rumi recommends, we learn to meet all our experiences at the door laughing, and invite them in. 

Each year, as I experience ongoing rivers of sadness, joy, tenderness, rage, sorrow, fear, longing, love, satisfaction, frustration, deep confusion and hopefulness that flow through me, Rumi’s advice seems more necessary, and more true. And it seems no more passing mood gets me in more trouble than the expectation of happiness. When happiness is the standard, almost anything else falls short. When I imagine that happy is the way I should most often feel, I can twist myself into all kinds of knots trying to bring it about, and invest myself in all kinds of comparisons, and standards, and unforgiving judgements about the life I’m already living. I can imagine that others have found the key to happiness – that they have it in a way that I don’t. And I have found out how easily I can end up narrowing my life in its pursuit, pushing away or disapproving of many other kinds of experience that arise, quite naturally, in day to day living.

Let me be clear – I think happiness is wonderful, and I love to feel it. And I’m also saying that I think there is a trap in making it life’s primary purpose, and in thinking that it’s even possible to cling onto it without in one way or another narrowing ourselves. Because happiness is just one of Rumi’s visitors, destined to be followed by all kinds of other experiences in any life that is allowed to breathe. And also because we ourselves are changing all the time, so that many of our attempts to generate future happiness are deeply flawed. The person we’ll be when the time comes for the happiness we’ve longed for to arrive will be different in so many ways, and may feel happy about different things, than the person who is making future happiness plans today.

So if happiness is transient, and if chasing it can so easily diminish us, what is worth pursuing? I think the answer almost certainly lies not in trying to feel a certain way but in the purposeful cultivation of what the ancient Greeks called the virtues – those capacities and qualities that allow us human beings to live in meaningful, vibrant, engaged ways, whatever our circumstances. There’s a wide freedom and much possibility in cultivating integrity, goodness, kindness, creativity, connectedness, flexibility, forgiveness, devotion, gratitude, resoluteness, intimacy, patience, truthfulness, warmth or wisdom, to name just a few.

Each of these virtues can be nurtured in an ongoing way through our everyday practices of speaking, listening, working, making, resting and expressing. Each may bring us happiness, yes, some of the time. And each may sometimes bring disappointment or frustration, or any other of Rumi’s guests. But it’s also the case that each of the virtues, if we’ll be disciplined enough to work on them and to attend to them, can also bring us deep opportunities for meaningful engagement with life, for belonging, and for contribution, whether we’re feeling happy, or sad, or despairing, or whatever else comes our way.

Photograph by Justin Wise

Join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s