Bookstores are full of books on how to be happier, and if you don’t like reading, you can find hundreds of podcasts on the subject. Characters in TV shows and movies tell each other all the time they, “just want them to be happy,” and make major life changes in pursuit of their own happiness. The radio is full of songs about happiness (or lack thereof), as is poetry, and social media feeds, T-shirts, stickers, water bottles--you name it, and you can find one with a smiley face on it, or some other message about happiness. Everybody wants to be happy--after all, it is the ultimate goal, isn’t it?
One would think with everyone wanting to be happy, we would be pretty good at it. It turns out that is not the case, in fact, the opposite is true: we are exceptionally terrible at finding happiness. We don’t understand what happiness is, and this causes us to chase after illusions and misunderstandings that ultimately bring us no closer to our goal than we were in the first place. One misunderstanding is thinking that happiness is a thing. We think that the next A on a test, the next pay raise, the next new car or new boyfriend will bring happiness. We get so used to the habit of getting more things to feed our happiness cravings that we even begin to treat people as things - they become “its” to us that we use to get the feelings we so desperately want. However, as C.S. Lewis puts it, “Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.” Eventually, we lose everything, and yet we put an awful lot of hope in things, including people. What once brought a smile to our face will inevitably become old news, and no longer bring us the happiness we seek. So, we move on to the next thing-- the next test, the possible promotion, a newer car, a better boyfriend. Instead of understanding the ineffectiveness of treating happiness as an object, we become even more determined to find the next big thing to give us that happy feeling, thinking that next time, next time, that feeling won’t go away. Except it always does.
Another big misunderstanding we have is thinking that happiness comes from comparing ourselves and coming out on top - also called the happiness of comparative advantage. We compare how we look, how much money we make, how much prettier our girlfriend is, how smart we are, car models, houses, social media posts, careers, and on and on and on. It never ends. If we compare and believe we are superior, we feel good, but if we compare and believe we are inferior, we feel resentment. If a comparison is the dominant source of happiness, we will constantly be obsessed with seeking that next win, and paranoid that others are trying to keep us from it. We must admit that this comparison comes from our pride, and so Lewis says, “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man.” Just like treating happiness as a thing, trying to find happiness in comparison only brings a temporary jolt of happiness, and ultimately leaves us feeling the same or even worse than before.
Even if we were able to figure out how to be happy all the time, it still wouldn’t bring us what we are seeking. Think about it-- the reason we can feel happiness is because we have something to compare it to -- sadness. Without sorrow, we can’t appreciate happiness, and furthermore, will never truly experience deep joy. Kahlil Gibran describes it perfectly in the excerpt from his poem “On Joy and Sorrow.”
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes
Filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more you can
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was
Hollowed with knives?
The truth is, we only think that we want to be happy all the time. Yes, we are seeking something, but that something isn’t happiness -- it is meaning, and from meaning -- joy.
Instead of thinking that life owes us something, and asking what life has to offer us, we need to change our mindset and ask what we have to offer life. We are the ones that owe life something.
This is the switch we need to make to get away from our methods of obtaining false happiness and move towards a meaningful, joy-filled life. Erich Fromm put it well when he said, “The essential difference between the unhappy, neurotic type person and him of great joy is the difference between get and give.”
Sometimes life can be really, really hard. Sometimes we suffer. Sometimes the car breaks down, and we lose our jobs, and the people we love get sick, and it feels like the entire universe is against us. If we live for happiness, our lives lose meaning when we suffer, for suffering destroys the conditions necessary for happiness. Searching for happiness is a black hole - it sucks the life right out of us; we never get enough, and we are never good enough. Yet if we live for meaning, suffering won’t have the same devastating impact. Joy expands; the more joy we give, the more joy we have to give. Staying late from the football game to help clean up or standing outside to hold doors for people during the winter are unpleasant tasks, yet it can be a suffering we gladly choose knowing the greater purpose it serves. When we remember the people we are loving through our service, our suffering becomes flooded with meaning. Then we are willing to joyfully embrace suffering, knowing we are living for a bigger purpose than our own happiness.
The next time you’re in the midst of suffering, instead of looking inward and slipping into self-pity, look outward to see if you can respond in a loving way to something or someone around you.
Work on catching yourself when you start comparing to others. Rather slipping into resentful inferiority or prideful superiority, make a connection with that person instead, and let her know how much you admire the effort she is making, or how happy you are for his success - and mean it from your heart. Notice how, over time, this will erode your natural, but nasty comparison habit.
The next time you are involved in an activity or relationship, take a moment to reflect on whether you’re doing it for joy or to prove something to yourself and others in an attempt to make you feel like you’re enough.
Be attentive to how you listen and speak in your relationships - do the hard work of examining your heart for hints that you’re manipulating and using people in attempts to make yourself happy. If you find those signals, which we all do, confess it to yourself and then change to more other-focused, loving, empathic responses. It’s difficult and humbling to do, but over time will lead to increasingly meaningful, authentic relationships where we will eventually even choose to suffer for the sake of the others - and consider it pure joy.
Kay Dodge was one of the leadership students Brent Grothe, her leadership advisor, challenged to pursue a life of humble service and has never been the same since. She is passionate about loving people, which is what she considers to be the purpose of life. One day she hopes to master her ego and love others and herself without reservation. She is beyond thankful for the opportunity to write about her passion with her former teacher and current friend.
Brent Grothe spends his days challenging high school kids to consider pursuing lives of deep meaning and purpose rather than ones of shallow happiness. He’s been presenting the suffering and joy of servant leadership for a long time and thinks he’s finally, in a real way, understanding it himself. On a never-ending quest to clearly articulate the slavery of ego versus the freedom of humility, he plans to stay in the classroom as a leadership teacher until someone decides to retire him. He’s been involved with activities and Mt. Adams High School Leadership Camp for 40+ years and he still can’t believe he actually gets to teach life for a living while at the same time being blessed with friendships with the likes of Kay Dodge.