Friday, October 7, 2011

Are We Meant to be Happy? No. Are We Meant to Have a Life of Meaning? Funny You Should Ask ...

Very quick piece. Last night, I gave a talk at NAMI San Diego. I had no problem picking a topic, as we would be holding our annual Inspirational Awards Dinner the next evening (tonight). We are honoring six local heroes, so I focused on connecting the dots - from values to a life of meaning to happiness.

I really don’t know too much about happiness, I confessed to my audience. I haven’t experienced it that much, and neither, I suspect, have you.

I spotted the heads nodding in agreement, and knew I was in for a good evening. Call me a killjoy, but there is something about demonstrably “happy” people that doesn’t ring true with me. They come across as fake. There’s a whole lot of personal unpleasantness that I know they are covering up. They are not being honest, with themselves or others.

Okay, that’s just my opinion, but my audience seemed to be validating it.

We’re really not built to be happy, I went on to say. Happiness is not well-suited to survival. Think about it. Imagine one of our distant ancestors - a happy caveman - merrily waltzing his way to the local watering hole, delighted to strike up an acquaintance with a saber-tooth tiger.

That caveman is not going to live long enough to pass on his happy genes.

Depression, of all things, is much better suited to survival. The rose-colored glasses come off. We see things as they really are. We make wise decisions. There is even a name for it - depressive realism. Too much depression, of course, like too much of anything, is not good. Nevertheless, I trust you get the point - we are wired to be depressed for a reason. 

But, yes, we would all like a bit more happiness in our lives. A number of enlightened thinkers have written on happiness in a psychological context, including George Vaillant, Martin Seligman, and the Dalai Lama. One common theme is that those who serve others are far more satisfied with their lives than those who are out for themselves.

One thing for sure, these people are not alone. Are they happy? Who knows? But they certainly have meaning in their lives.

Service to others is one characteristic all our six Awardees tonight share in common. To a person, they are on a mission, they have a calling.

How about you? I asked my audience. How many of you have a calling? A number of hands shot up. This was, after all, an audience of people involved in mental health, whether as advocates or caring for family members. One man mentioned facilitating a support group. I pressed him on this. Can you describe a satisfying moment for you? I asked.

Yes, he said. When a new member of the group hears other people’s stories and she realizes she is not alone. The look on that person’s face.

I used to facilitate a support group. I could well relate. It kind of makes showing up early to turn on the lights and arrange the chairs in the room and lay out the brochures on the table worth it, I suggested.

There were a lot of nodding heads in the room.

Did Steve Jobs have a calling? His passing the day before was fresh on everyone's minds. I pulled out the script of a 1997 Apple ad. “Here’s to the crazy ones,” I began. “The misfits. The rebels. The trouble-makers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. ... They push the human race forward.”

By rights, NAMI San Diego should be the most miserable place on earth. We have been through hell and hell again. But everyone there has a calling. To a person, their lives have meaning. No surprise, when I walk into NAMI these are people I want to be around.

One member of the audience raised the point that happiness is not a goal. That we should be striving for something else. This is a person who has collected quite a few awards of her own over her very meaningful career.

Ah, a life of meaning.

A few seconds later, my iPhone went off. I had forgotten to mute it. In full view of the audience, I pulled it out of my jeans pocket. I know somewhere up there Steve Jobs is smiling.


Mic said...

I love this article. Heavyweights gain joy from overcoming obstacles :) There's something about the human spirit.... We're easily bored. We're not easily satisfied. We must overcome obstacles and help others to gain a sense of meaning in life. I think we're meant to be happy. For some reason I'm always smiling, even in the midst of the battle w/the saber.

Bettie said...

I like that word - joy. That is something we experience rather than something we are. In my experience, the most miserable among us can experience joy. Being "happy" seems to depend on external events rather than coming from within and consequently is hard to own.

John McManamy said...

Hey, Mic and Bettie. I also like the word, joy. As you said, this is something we experience, which means we can aim for it, which of course involves effort.

But even if you prefer using the term happy, effort is involved. All the happiness commentators agree on this.