November 6, 2018

The Pursuit of Happiness

No, this won't be a discussion of the Declaration of Independence, or of the excellent movie with Will Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness. 

I want to think about the lifelong pursuit all of us have for satisfaction, for joy, for happiness. Of course, this isn't restricted to the retirement years. As a youngster most of us want nothing but happiness; chores and  duties were to be avoided at all costs. As we got older, we often experiment with things that might bring momentary happiness: alcohol, drugs, sex.

Later it becomes the search for deep love and commitment to someone or something. Too often that is followed by the belief that money or possessions equal contentment. "If I only had......I'd be happy." 

Honestly, I fell for all these false gods at one point or another. If you grew up in middle class America it was hard to avoid. Even my religious upbringing stressed the rewards God would bestow on me if I believed completely and followed the "rules," both written and unwritten.

I am quite certain that retirement is a journey, not a destination. Along the way, I have learned that much of what I accepted with blind faith in my younger years might have been well-meaning, but it was wrong, or at least requires a critical review.

I am in the midst of a rather intensive study of spirituality. That has caused me to question and broaden my understanding of what makes the universe and me operate the way we do. It has given me a much wider, more encompassing, and frankly more joyful worldview than I receieved from my traditional upbringing. Facing the possibility of eternal punishment wasn't exactly a happy place.

I am more questioning of the forces that drive our society and culture. Some of the not-so-attractive parts of our history that were glossed over during my school years are too powerful to ignore. Other parts of what made us who we are remain empowering and encouraging.

A post of a week or two ago stimulated some tremendous comments with back-and-forth exchanges of concerns about our future. Frankly, it was not all "sunshine and roses" but was a necessary conversation.

With all that being said, this post is ultimately meant to be uplifting. Through the disappointments, false narratives, even a questioning of the foundation of my faith life, I have reaffirmed the, the likelihood, that the pursuit of happiness (or its more permanent cousin, joy) is both possible and can have a positive conclusion.

What I would like to suggest after 17+ years of the retirement life, is that happiness is a concept that changes over time. What made me happy at my grandfather's farm at age 7 was not what made me feel good at 16, or 22, or 27, the year I married the woman of my dreams. What made me feel successful and satisfied at 40 or 50 holds little interest in my 69th year. 

Maybe that is why we refer to the "pursuit" of happiness. It is not a single moment in time. but in constant evolution. Probably the saddest thing to see is someone who chases his or her vision of happiness that has remained unchanged since teenage or young adult years. Being locked into just one version of satisfaction almost guarantees a life of disappointment, chasing something that can never be grasped, or an outlook on the unfairness of life that is, to put it politely, misguided.

Perhaps we would be better off to replace the word happiness with the word, joy. The former is usually caused by some external event or circumstance. Happiness is to be strived for but is usually fleeting. That perfect, sunny afternoon at the ball game ends. The unwrapping of presents on Christmas morning is followed by the letdown of cleaning up the mess and knowing that something that had such a big buildup is over in just an hour or so. Happiness is temporary. Not bad, just not permanent.

A balance life can be a joyful life

Joy is an internal condition that tends to be longer-lasting. It is the feeling of contentment, satisfaction, of parts of one's life being in balance and working together, of being comfortable with one's self. While the happiness of an event, holiday, or special occasion ends, the joy of being with loved ones continues. The feeling that your life is unfolding the way it is meant to, that you are strong enough to face what may come, is joy. The peace that a spiritual awareness brings is joy. 

The pursuit of happiness and joy. One is temporary, one is more long lasting and life-centered. Both are worth pursuing. How is your journey going?


  1. Bob, I an anxiously waiting for a discussion of your study. I went through the same thing some years ago and it did change my view of the world for the better.

    As you often say, joy, peace and happiness is not really a destination but instead a process. A big part of it to me at least for me is letting go of the fear, anxiety and the resulting depression. In the past I often found myself worrying over things that I really have no control over. Shaking that feeling off is a fundamental part of the journey.

    1. I have been reading everything I can about the philosophy of perennial wisdom and the tension between organized religion versus a wider view of the subject. Richard Rohr, Marcus Borg, and Rami Shapiro are covering my nightstand.

      As I type this the election results are still coming in, so letting go of fear and anxiety may not come until the sun comes up tomorrow and I know we all survived!

  2. “If there is no solution to the problem then don't waste time worrying about it. If there is a solution to the problem then don't waste time worrying about it.”
    ― The Dalai Lama

    No one that I know of has said it better, that happiness is a choice. I also think this aligns with having a purpose to make your corner of the world just a little bit better. As long as we make productive choices that support our purpose we will be happy. I think this is true for every life stage.

    It is also true that if we choose to take a shortcut with money, sex, drugs or fame any happiness will be fleeting ultimately leading to being unhappy.

    1. The Dalai Lama says many things that are worth learning; the quote above is one of the best.

      I compare happiness to renting a movie on Prime. It provides 2 hours of entertainment but then is over. Joy is an internal condition that lasts and isn't produced by a short term external force.

  3. From 'Something More' by Sarah Ban Breathnach, paraphrased: Many of us confuse Happiness with Joy. Happiness is often triggered by external events - you get a promotion, he/she loves you back, your bid to buy a new home is accepted. Joy is different. Joy is the absence of fear, joy is your soul's knowledge that even if you don't get any of these things, life is still rich.

    The above immediately resonated with me, and it has caused a very real shift in how I'm both living, and viewing my life. I'm focusing much more on joy, which I see as lasting, vs. happiness, which I now recognize as fleeting. Very, very fleeting.

    1. Exactly. Joy is an overall warmth, or feeling of being settled and accepting. I will check out the book you mention for more of her thoughts.

      Thanks, Tamara.

  4. I don't mean for this to be controversial, Bob, but for me all of the things that you and others have said about joy (a spiritual awareness, accepting, peace etc.) came when I left behind my spirituality. When I was a Christian I wrestled a lot with the age old question of why bad things happened in the world (especially natural things) when there was a loving and all-powerful God that could have prevented them. As an atheist, I find much more peace in knowing that these things simply happen due to natural processes and cannot be prevented. There is now less stress and angst in my life.

    I also used to say a quick prayer when faced with a stressful meeting at work or a difficult situation in the rest of my life. I no longer pray in those situations, but find I get through them just as well or better than I used to. That has given me more confidence in my own strength and abilities, and hence more joy in life. To each their own, though.

    Your piece drew attention to the interesting contrast between joy and happiness. I guess I had not spent much time thinking about that, and sort of used the terms interchangeably. Thanks for providing some food for thought!

    1. I am moving away from a tradition-based, cultural-defined belief into something that recognizes God, or a Supreme Being, or the Ultimate Reality (the name doesn't matter since it is a human term to name something we can't name) is in everything, including me. My "job" is to allow that manifestation of that bit of God in me to be reflected in how I treat others, how I show compassion, how I love.

      God doesn't bless one country or one religion or one way of visualizing its existence. Good and bad and light and darkness are part of how the universe works. We can't assume God loves us more when good things happen and less when bad things do. They happen because they have to. Can I accept the bad along with the good? I must or my beliefs are meaningless.

  5. As long as your emotions are (seemingly) a direct result of your circumstances, other people, and everything external, you can't help but feel like a cork bobbing on the ocean. When the surface is calm, you feel fine, but when things get stormy, your mood is at the mercy of the weather.

    But what if that cause-and-effect is an illusion? What if your emotions come instead from your thoughts *about* your circumstances, other people, etc, not from those elements themselves? And what if treating those thoughts as "the truth" or "reality" rather than the transient wisps they are just makes things worse, as you dig your yourself into a deeper negative hole?

    If you understand that you actually live in the feeling of your thinking rather than in the feeling of your circumstances, you change this dynamic. Thoughts come and go, moods go up and down, but the down moods evaporate pretty quickly when you neither take your thinking so seriously or try to suppress it because it's upsetting.

    This has been an enormously helpful and practical insight for me. Life doesn't become nirvana -- unpleasant things still occur -- but a sense of equanimity and calmness is my default now. Read more about this in Michael Neill's "The Inside-Out Revolution" and Amy Johnson's "The Little Book of Big Change."

    1. I think you are saying what I attempted to summarize in my response to Dave. The world is the way it is. We must accept it. But, how we accept reality makes all the difference. THere is no light without a contrast (darkness). Nothing is good unless there is bad to compare it to. If everything were good then that wouldn't be good, it would just be...normal.

      Our thoughts and perceptions are filtered through several different lens...religious, social, cultural, historical, but not ultimate reality.

      Is that close?

  6. From another blog post:

    Happiness or Well-Being?

    Sometimes when Happiness is used it’s as an all-encompassing term. However, the more useful concept may be well-being, of which happiness is one aspect. Psychologists differentiate between three types of well-being. Hedonic well-being is what we tend to think of with happiness – the feeling of happiness. But there’s also Evaluative well-being, which is about life satisfaction and Eudemonic well-being, which is about purpose and meaning. Emily Esfahani Smith, author of The Power of Meaning writes about this and highlights the value of pursuing Eudemonic well-being over Hedonic well-being, as the latter is fleeting.

    1. You are getting a little deep for me, but I think we are on the same page: happiness is part of well-being but well-being isn't just happiness.

  7. For me joy and Jesus are closely linked, and I find happiness in being in Bible study with women at my church and in being in our newly formed widows' group, plus of course spending time with family and friends, volunteer work, etc. I think joy is deeper than happiness and less fleeting.

    1. I agree, Terra. Joy can be a constant companion while Happiness comes and goes.


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