Happiness or Engagement: What do you Choose

I began writing in my journal forty-five years ago when my daughter was born.  For much of each day, I was seeing couples in therapy, teaching young therapists, and taking care of Jessie.  I loved each of the activities but longed for a moment of quiet, a time when no one was asking anything of me.  So I began to wake at 5:00, one full hour before Jessie got up, in order to peacefully reflect on life.

I always wrote in the same notebook with the same pen, sitting the same easy chair.  A ritual emerged.  Within a few months, the ritual almost automatically quieted my mind.  It was like entering a trance, almost sensual in its calm.  The calm would build, peak and wane, and for the longest time, I tried to lengthen its stay.  I couldn’t, and eventually I found a way to let the quiet go.  I accepted its momentary quality.  Both the quiet and the release of the moment are true to this day.

When I was building my house in New Hampshire, I would work long hours, oblivious of time—the absorption was so complete. These days, when I am playing handball with my grandson, walking and talking with Franny on a sunny day, or deep in conversation with a friend, preferably over drinks, I feel something of that absorption.  Time almost stops.  Nothing else enters my mind.  I love these feelings.

There are other experiences that are not so welcome: the nine months, for example, when the organization I led seemed on the edge of failure and dissolution.  It was terrifying. My team and I worked around the clock, with extraordinary focus, staving off panic, and doing some of our best work.  As we emerged from the darkness, we looked at each other with a powerful affection and respect.  Ultimately, this was a good time.

For decades, America has been entranced with the idea of happiness, not absorption, not focused engagement.  Happiness represents one of our great industries.  Books, advice columns, and infomercials tell us the six, eight, or ten keys to happiness.  Positive psychologists tell us that we can train ourselves and achieve unerring results.  If we are not happy, there is something wrong with us.  We are told to take anti-depressants and to seek psychotherapy—or to address the catalogue of our inadequacies.  Maybe we haven’t tried hard enough, haven’t achieved enough, haven’t found the right person, the right job, the right place to live or vacation.  If we’re not happy, we need to keep searching as though we were Ponce de Leon in pursuit of the Fountain of Youth.

I have also have fallen hard to the enchanted promise of happiness, trying in a hundred different ways to get to that holy land.  I have meditated for forty-five years, hoping to rise above my negative feelings.  I have been in therapy and I have taken fabulous vacations.  I have had a great family, wonderful friends, terrific work.

In spite of these efforts, I find happiness chimerical.  The harder I try, the more I’m disappointed.  I am not alone.  As Ruth Whippman, author of a new book, America the Anxious, puts it, “Paradoxically, the more people were encouraged to value happiness as a separate life goal, the less happy they were.”  Victor Frankl concurs:  “It is the single minded pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”

In my experience, the emphasis on happiness as an end in itself also steers us in unproductive directions.  It almost inevitably leads inward.  We constantly check our emotional pulse.  Are we happy?  Happy enough?  Are other people happier?  What’s their secret?  We seek quick fixes in food, movies, and drugs.  They are not sustaining.  Ultimately, the search, itself, makes us self conscious and anxious.

What’s more, the search leads in a self-centered direction.  “I want to be happy” is entirely different from “I want to make life better for others,” Or “I want to serve my country.”  Or “I want to do a really good job.”  Trying to lead a happy life, psychologists have found, is associated with being a “taker” while seeking a meaningful life aligns with being a “giver.”   “Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life,” they write, “in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.”

When fully engaged, we lose ourselves.  We become totally absorbed in a task, in achieving goals, in teamwork.  Mihaly Csikszentmihali has written eloquently about “the psychology of optimal experience,” which he calls “flow.”  Athletes call the experience “being in the zone.”  A basketball player in the zone shoots the ball with complete commitment and certainty.  It will go in.  Artists, writers, tradesmen, and leaders at their best, regularly enter the zone.  It is most likely to occur when you are stretched and totally absorbed, totally concentrated on achieving a goal.  When you are in the zone, you are “fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”  The feeling is almost ecstatic.

There is a parental mantra that has grown stronger over the last several decades: “I don’t care what my child does so long has s/he is happy.”  This has never been my mantra.  I used to say that I want my children to feel loved so that they were capable of loving others.  The focus is on the other.  I wanted them to believe that they can do what they put their mind to do so they can serve whatever purpose they find in life, and to serve with enough concentration that that their energy flows freely.  I believe that these two capabilities, love and confidence lead to fulfillment, which I treasure above happiness—and will lead often enough to happiness.  As the psychologist, Daniel Gilbert says, “happiness is a place to visit, not a place to live.”

Over the years, as I become engrossed in my journal writing, reaching a new understanding of some feeling or idea, I often enough grow calm, so calm it seems that I am giddy and I laugh aloud.  Then the feeling wanes and I let it go.  The visit to happiness has been a good one, and I am satisfied.

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4 thoughts on “Happiness or Engagement: What do you Choose”

    1. This one was great fun to write; and there was so much left unsaid. For instance, the feeling of “flow” is very interesting, of itself. The experiences of engagement and distraction–and a society that is distracting. I’m hoping to return.

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  1. I liked this post.
    I moved to Israel 37 years ago to find meaning and fulfillment in life, not fake American “happiness”. And I have been fully engaged with Israel ever since.

    Like

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