Monday, October 16, 2006

On the pursuit of happiness

I’m reading a book by the Dalai Lama at the moment, and it opened my eyes to a few things that I had known for a long time, but either denied or forgotten for that time being:

The purpose of life is to achieve happiness.

Oh, I hear the evangelicals howl in outrage.
But what is happiness – true happiness – other than heaven, other than the soul perfectly tuned, perfectly in peace with itself and its source of life, reaping the maximum benefits from this relationship? All the bible asks... all any religion teaches... are ways to achieve that. There is nothing selfish about it. Happiness is the soul’s ideal state, the soul’s archaic, original state, which is why anything in life, any motivation, is aimed to reach this state, in healthy or unhealthy ways, or to simply avoid its opposite, di-stress. A happy soul will automatically strive to be virtuous and to create happiness around itself. A happy soul is a saint’s soul.
True, suffering may build character, but what else does suffering do but remind you of what you really want, of emphasising the lack of which you crave? They say suffering makes you stronger, but I don’t necessarily agree. Suffering breaks you, bit by bit, cripples your vision of goodness, and makes you fearful. And it is no secret what happens to many hurt and scared people. A precious few learn. But most of them lash out and pass on the suffering that was inflicted on them. No healthy, stable individual goes to commit a crime. Or violence.

The worry is that the goal to achieve happiness becomes one of unscrupulous hedonism and selfishness. But things like that don’t bring happiness. There is nothing wrong with a healthy level of pleasure-seeking, but as soon as it becomes addiction, it will lead to suffering. Happiness and goodness go hand in hand.

The sentence we are to find solace in in the midst of suffering – “It can only get better, there is no way it could get worse” – is a lie. It can always get worse. One doesn’t even have to point to Job to know that. That sentence is a cop-out.
Suffering doesn’t create good people. It creates, for the most, bad people. Crime. A permanent sense of loss and deprivation and fear that creates greed. Envy. Bitterness. Look at me. When I’m depressed, I’m a shit person and a shit friend. I become bitter, angry, destructive, whiny, clingy.

Is the pursuit of happiness mere hedonism? Buddhism differentiated between happiness and pleasure. True happiness does not create bad consequences. Happier people are more willing to help others, are much more open to connect, less willing to inflict harm. They can only give what they got. How can that be a bad thing?

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