“What Makes Life Worth Living?” reads the banner installed atop the East Hall atrium, still hanging in belated promotion of the Fall 2010 LSA semester theme. As I sat and pondered the daunting question (while I should have been studying), my mind began to drift to thoughts of what makes my life worth living, and what makes me happy. I thought of my friends, my family, my studies, my dog… you get the picture. Stemming from this dense contemplation, I first thought I would write this week’s post on the topic of happiness. It seems that everyone is obsessed with the question of how to find it, how to maintain it, if one’s level of it is static across the lifetime or if it’s really possible to start seeing the glass half-full if you’ve always been the glass-half-empty kinda’ gal.
Yet to start composing my planned piece on happiness seemed to overlook one big thing—that to write a whole post on happiness takes for granted the assumption that personal happiness is even of importance at all.
Consider the lofty role happiness has taken up in your life thus far. Anytime you waver in making certain decisions, what do your friends ask you? It is usually a variation on the question of “Will it make you happy?” Personal happiness is placed on a high pedestal in American culture, with all other sorts of factors gone by the wayside.
My problem with happiness lies in the fact that it is a fleeting feeling, a temporary pleasure like food, television, or sex. It is even more fleeting in the sense that it is only pertinent to your life and your lifetime. After you die, all those dreams you chased, all those hours you spent on the treadmill– they become irrelevant, erased. All that was ‘you’ disappears, your legacy left as a mere organic body. All your personal possessions become ownerless. The house you spent five years decorating to perfection is emptied. The car you saved up for is has been disassembled and sold for parts. Every smartphone,
The problem is that we are so wrapped up in our content, happy lives that doing anything not somehow-related to increasing personal pleasure seems ludicrous. (For an interesting take on this subject, see this clip from ‘Friends’ in which characters Phoebe and Joey debate whether you can truly perform a good deed without your own happiness tainting your altruistic motives.)
So I dare you to ask yourself the bold question if your being happy is all that valuable. If you concentrate on yourself, the individual, when answering the question, you might answer that ‘yes, of course being happy is important.’ You might say that ‘being happy is what makes life worth living,’ or that ‘being happy is what makes me more capable of helping others.’ But what if you could look beyond your own happiness to make the short time you have this earth much more meaningful? What if all people came together to instead work on problems such as world peace or world hunger?
The often-ignored reality is that not all the world’s wars have ended, and not all the children’s mouths have been fed. What’s more, not all people are free, not all people have shelter, and not all people have the luxury to worry about something so self-indulgent as personal happiness. I am not advocating that we each give up our own pursuit of happiness only to work on the happiness of others. I instead insist that we take a good look at the immense disparity between, for example, the way middle-class America lives versus the way those in truly underprivileged conditions live. I am pointing out the fact that it might be immoral not to level the playing field a bit and secure these individuals’ basic human rights to survival first. Contrary to what it may seem, I do support the pursuit of happiness. It just feels horribly selfish to indulge it whilst bigger national, global, and community problems remain unresolved, and while people still die of starvation as you read this article (PS, somewhere around 25,000 people die each day from hunger-related causes, according to this hunger relief organization.)
Now I know that facing the end of the days in which your happiness was of utmost importance is not a comfortable realization by any means. Just like no one desires to be woken up out of his or her cozy bed in the morning, confronting the idea that your happiness should not be your top priority is a bit unpleasant, to say the least. But this might just be the point. Becoming aware of this internal contradiction is not supposed to be pleasant. Think about what it would be like if this unpleasantness was not just a thought you came across, but rather that it was your permanent condition. That is the harsh reality to which I wish to bring attention.
By: Nicole Grinstein
(Photo courtesy of sxc.hu)