I'm making a little book called Just So Many Words: A Dictionary of Life-Giving Definitions. The premise is that no definition can ultimately be right, so why not use those that are the most helpful?
Thanks to Julia whose comment on ambition inspired me to write an entry for happiness.
…Aristotle said, is the only thing worthwhile in and of itself—the only thing we seek for its own sake. We want all the other things—money, love, power, sex, friendship, and so on—because we think they will make us happy. Of course, Aristotle used a Greek word: eudaimonia (literally “good spirit/deity”), and our word happiness is not a perfect translation. For the Greeks, eudaimonia suggested something more pervasive and substantial—something like “deep satisfaction and well-being.” If we think of happiness as “feeling deeply good,” I think we can agree with Aristotle that it’s the one thing we all really want.
But is that bad news? Does it make for perpetual conflict between billions of people squabbling over who gets to be happy? Mother Teresa said, “The miracle is not that we do this work, but that we are happy to do it.” She’s recognizing a truth about humans that is beautiful beyond words. She’s echoing Christ who could not have been blunter when he told us, “My burden is light,” and urged his followers to be easy and carefree. The truth is that the more I make feeling deeply good my priority, the more I want to contribute to others feeling deeply good. Mother Teresa’s words point to the difference between pleasing people and serving people. Pleasing people arises from a sense of lack, while serving people arises from a feeling of overflow—from deep happiness.
We can’t fake this. Christ was dead serious about being lighthearted. It doesn’t work to pretend we’re happy to give to others when we’re actually resentful or feel like we’re sacrificing ourselves. We really do have to tend the garden of our own happiness before its bounty can be shared with others. This may mean building walls around that garden sometimes, to keep out those who would trample our seedlings.
Claiming our deep happiness, and perhaps building a few walls around it, can be a bold step for a lot of us who were raised to believe it’s moral and noble to sacrifice our happiness for others. It can seem hugely presumptuous and selfish. (It's wise to expect blowback from some people around us if we suddenly start claiming our happiness when we weren't before.) But how can we value another’s happiness if we don’t value our own? We need to know happiness intimately before we are qualified to help others find it. We have to be willing to be selfish before we can be truly selfless.
Happiness is not heroic. It’s our ground of being. Climbing for it is climbing away from it. Happiness comes from falling: falling in love, falling down the rabbit hole of what fascinates us, falling from another's grace and into our own.
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