“‘Money doesn’t buy happiness.’ Do you live in America? Because it buys a waverunner.” ~ Daniel Tosh
Is the greatest pursuit in life truly happiness?
Is it really that simple?
I think most people would say that finding happiness is the clearest, purest goal that any person could have. Whether theist or atheist, general consensus states that, if nothing else, finding personal contentment translates to success in life.
I’d like to challenge that notion.
Life, Liberty and the Preservation of Property
We find happiness quite easily. A favorite song, a good book, an enjoyable movie. Call these the Aesthetic Joys. Then there is Chemical Happiness, through alcohol, drugs and even food. As a society, we frown on this sort of happiness, excepting it as a social exercise but decrying it as ‘fake’ happiness. It’s a common refrain in religious circles to claim that such pursuits are poor substitutes for the joy of knowing God. Well, that’s a bit of the ol’ ‘begging the question’, but I’m not going to address that here.
Admittedly, these bring only a temporary happiness, one that can often (but not always) be followed by a precipitous emotional fall.
An even more shallow pursuit is what I deem Possessive Happiness:
Those things we buy, the items we own, they very much do bring about happiness, despite that old canard about what money cannot buy. People buy new phones, new shoes, new boobs and they are happy. Maybe it’s a fleeting happiness as they will soon want something else new, but temporary happiness counts for something.
Some of the most wretchedly cheerful people I’ve ever known have been the type of people who can squeal with excitement over a new jacket or designer sunglasses.
Shallow? Sure, but consumerism is America’s favorite pastime for a reason.
There is no such thing as everlasting happiness.
And that includes religion. Consider how many miserable Christians there are in the world and then tell me ‘God’ brings true joy. I’ve known chronically happy Christians, but I’ve known chronically happy non-Christians, too; it’s not salvation, it’s a personality trait. Those who find contentment through faith aren’t happy because of God, they are happy because they have found a purpose, both personal and cosmic. It doesn’t matter if that purpose is real or not, just so long as they believe it. Which is why faith is so insidious and hard to undermine.
We need purpose. More so than love, money or comfort. Now, love, money or comfort can be our purpose, which is why so many people are happy when they achieve them, but it’s the realization of one’s purpose that matters most in the equation.
The standard Creationist argument is that Nature looks designed so it must have a designer. Those same people would say, “You’re an atheist, that means there is no purpose, just accidental existence.” Well, they’d be half right.
Purpose, like morality, is personal. It is not derived from a cosmic force, but instead comes from an internal compass, an evolved conscience. And again, like morality, the logically and evolutionarily soundest form of purpose is that which benefits the most people, the species as a whole.
All I Want Now Is Happiness for You and Me
If your personal purpose is happiness for yourself, maybe even for your loved ones, that makes surface sense. It resounds with the sort of simplicity that is often mistaken for nobleness.
But why limit yourself to such meager aspirations?
Shouldn’t our purpose in life be to improve the world, to leave this place better than we found it? Why settle for mere happiness when we have 70 to 90 years on this planet to make a positive impact?
I find religion to be just as shallow and selfish as consumerism or drug-taking* because 75% of people who ‘find religion’ will never do anything with it more than just enjoy a smug sense of cosmic completeness. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want more proselytizing in the world (please God, no), but when compared to the people who were martyred in the past because they believed their message was The Good News, I find the Joel Olsteen-loving, C.S. Lewis-quoting Christians of the modern age flaccid and contemptible.
But my scorn is not just for the religious. My real disgust is with my generation, the bitching and moaning generation that has never failed to find a cloud in their silver lining. Anything that doesn’t result in our immediate happiness is to be thrust from us like a pea from under the Princess’ mattress.
We cannot bear discomfort. We can’t even bear a Facebook layout change.
Which is why so few of us have a purpose worth a damn. Because to make a difference, to bring about change, one must be willing to accept change, and there is nothing more uncomfortable than that.
I don’t know what your purpose should be. It doesn’t have to be religious, political or moral. In fact, I’d suggest that those aren’t all that important. Still, if you think being a missionary in China or a Teabagger or an abortion protester is your grand purpose, I can’t say I’ll be supportive of your efforts, but I can at least respect the impetus to act.
We’re not all going to agree what truly matters in this world, but if you believe that contentment is the highest pursuit, I think you suffer from a lack of imagination.
The world is bigger than you and your happiness. Grow up. Join in.
*This shouldn’t be read as an anti-consumerism, anti-drug screed. In fact, buy all the shit you want, take all the drugs and alcohol you want, screw and party and do what makes you happy. Just don’t make that the entirety of your life.