A colleague at work today asked me if I was happy. The question is not surprising considering that four months ago, when I went on an extended medical leave, I was in total crisis mode, and definitely not happy. What’s shocking is my reaction to this question; I really didn’t know how to respond. I could see that she was genuinely concerned about me, so I nonchalantly responded, “Oh ya, I’m happy.” Throughout the day, this started to eat away at me because I’m not exactly sure what happy looks like or feels like.
For most of my life, I’ve equated my happiness with pleasure; something that can be bolstered by material things be it fashion, food, drugs, or possessions. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that happiness in this form is transitory, illusionary, and diminishing. I have the mindset of an addict, so defining happiness based on the metric of pleasure acquisition, is a slippery slope that invariably leads to dissatisfaction and excess. Even at 16 years clean and sober, I’m plagued by this type of thinking each, and every day. If you want to see this in action, just watch me sit down to a plate of my wife’s homemade oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies. As soon as I take my first bite of one of the four cookies on my plate, instead of feeling happiness, I’m flooded with anxiety and the need to get more. 18, 20 cookies later, all the pleasure I was chasing is now just a guilt-ridden stomach ache. This scenario replays itself weekly in our house.
If I’m to live a more authentic life, I will need to undergo a radical shift in my understanding of happiness. This brings me back to the question I was asked today at work, and whether or not I’m happy. Superficially I have all the makings of happiness: a loving wife and son, a fancy sports car, a great house, and lots of the little luxuries I pamper myself with. The reason I balk at believing I’m happy is that like the oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies, these things leave me wanting more and feeling uneasy because they can be so quickly taken away.
Aristotle wrestled with the same philosophical problem when he said: “The function of man is to live a certain kind of life, and this activity implies a rational principle, and the function of a good man is the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed, it is performed in accord with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, then happiness turns out to be an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.”
So there’s the rub… I don’t think there is much “virtue” in my acquisition of material possessions nor in my futile attempts to seek pleasure through food and drugs. What Aristotle was reaching for was something greater, a totality of living a “virtuous” life. This idea of happiness is not fleeting like our modern notion of pleasure-induced happiness. I am a product of a society of instant gratification fueled by untethered consumerism. If I’m to aspire to lasting happiness, I will need to reframe my entire outlook.
One of my greatest fears in life is to be on my deathbed surrounded by things, and not people. I’m terrified of dying alone, of not leaving a footprint on this place, of not being missed. A huge piece of my year-long project to seek an authentic life through vulnerability and growth, will need me to align my notion of what it means to be happy with that of Aristotle. My new equation looks something like this:
TIME(PATIENCE) + INTROSPECTION + EMPATHY + FEARLESSNESS = HAPPINESS
Can I be a better husband, father, friend, teacher, neighbor, global citizen? The answer is definitely “yes”. Am I willing to do the soul-searching, pain-staking work to be better? Again, the answer today is “yes”. I’ve got a lifetime of protective veneer to chip away at, and I am grateful that happiness is not "something I can get”, but rather, "something I can be” but only if I keep walking towards “virtue”.