We are often told, and made to believe, that we should aspire to happiness: to enjoy and take pleasure in each moment of life. Indeed, the wise among us know that happiness—not money, power, or success—is the goal we must strive toward if we want to lead meaningful lives.
Perhaps it is time we rethink this. Certainly, happiness is a good thing in and of itself. Making it our highest goal and greatest ambition, however, seems deeply misguided. To focus narrowly on the things that bring us pleasure and to try to attain some sort of perpetual contentment with our situation and the state of the world is, in many ways, to ignore reality.
As students, we go through each day with the illusory ideal of the American college experience at the back of our minds. Perhaps this is less true at UChicago—where fun goes to die!—but the pressure of the tale exists nonetheless. College, we are told, is a time for us to have fun, make wild memories, build meaningful relationships, and prepare for a career. We should do all these things. But we should not feel burdened by a need to be happy at every waking moment. In other words, we should not aspire to be happy—at least not in the simple, self-indulgent sense.
Instead, we should strive for fulfillment. We should seek to comprehend reality and work to make the most of it, to do what we can to fix what’s broken in our daily lives and the society in which we live. We should aspire to fully appreciate the depth of our collective existence: good and bad, blissful and bleak. In doing so, we learn to lean on our friends and family, and hit the pillow each night with a sense of real purpose.
Too often, it seems, we focus heavily on doing pleasurable things and maximizing our enjoyment of the world. We try to elevate our mood and be happy—not merely for us, but often to satisfy the expectations of others. To have something nice to post on Instagram.
As a result, we routinely ignore the complexity of the world that lies in front of us. We try to sweeten our sometimes-bitter coffee by tossing in another packet of sugar instead of considering how it got like that in the first place. Not only are we left less fulfilled on a personal level, but we also tacitly accept the ills of the world as inextinguishable—not worth worrying about. And it is precisely this attitude that fuels so many of the issues we deal with among friends, family, and indeed, as a nation and globe. Ignorance may well be bliss. But are we truly fulfilled when our bliss is steeped in fiction?
The struggles we face and the troubles of the world certainly weigh upon us when we choose to confront them. This should not discourage us, however. We can find happiness, enjoy life, and do something to make a positive impact once we confront the sometimes bleak state of our globe. To some, this goal may seem like little more than another high-minded plea from an idealistic undergrad. It is not. Recent research is increasingly demonstrating that the more we concern ourselves with, and do something about, the ills of the world, the better off we are on an individual level. This recent study from Harvard, for example, finds that people who use their financial resources to help others see a substantial, positive impact on their own wellbeing. Another study has found these positive feelings actually precipitate an upward spiral in which physical health improves as positive emotions increase and vice-versa.
Perhaps more tangibly, however, in focusing on finding fulfillment and concerning ourselves with the uglier truths in front of us, we develop better, stronger relationships. Our happiness begins to depend less on the short-term highs of pleasure and indulgence and more on the meaning we derive from confronting difficult problems and engaging in vulnerable conversations with our friends and family.
In another study, researchers found that individuals who reported eudaemonic happiness—eudaemonia being the Greek word describing a fuller sense of happiness or “human flourishing”—had stronger immune system function than those who reported hedonistic happiness. In other words, finding fulfillment as opposed to simply finding enjoyment positively affects us on a cellular level. Other research has even discovered links between this type of fulfillment and better sleep, less reactivity to stress, and brain activity patterns that have been linked to lower levels of depression.
Ironically, in abandoning happiness as our goal—allowing ourselves to feel sad, dispirited, frustrated, and furious when events and truths prompt us to—we will not only be more fulfilled, we will probably also find greater happiness. Let’s liberate ourselves from the need to always be happy—live lives unencumbered by the inevitable disappointment in failing to achieve constant happiness. Not only will our world witness less adversity, we will be better off as individuals.
Dylan Stafford is a first-year in the College.