"Affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our lives." - CS Lewis
I am here in these COVID times… physical distancing, minding my own business, waiting for March to blow away the dark winter and bring us light and life-sustaining vaccinations, and drinking more lattes than usual. Perhaps hanging out in this strange, quiet, pensive, in-between place has allowed me to be more attentive to my own and to others’ dilemmas, to values, and to the paths we travel in life.
According to some researchers, all these messy dilemmas when sorted out ultimately offer only two paths. One path is more me-centered; the other is more we or other-centered. The me-path can lead to happiness, but it will be a fluctuating sort of happiness with both exciting high and depressing low points. The we/other-path will lead toward a more sustainable, impervious to outer circumstances, peaceful, sort of happiness.
All those quandaries (which job, where to live, how to behave toward my children) make us dig into our values and thoughts about happiness. What is right or good or important, why? What will cause me or others the greatest good or happiness, how?
In those dilemmas we might head toward values which we think will make us look better than others, give us power over others, feed our egos. And, according to researchers, we can, it seems, be happy with these me-centered goals and values. But remember the big kicker. We will only be happy sometimes. Those happy times will be mostly when we are on top of the heap.
All the other time, when we are not beating others, we may be feeling jealousy, anger, envy, and frustration. We will spend our time looking for threats to our self-esteem and comparing ourselves to others. Those undesirable feelings and behaviors will be coupled with a lot of cortisol (the biological marker of stress, a steroid hormone involved with cardiovascular disease) roaming around in our bodies.
A self-oriented, me-first because-I’m-better-than-others (at least want to be) is a roller-coaster, happy one minute/unhappy the next sort of life based on what some might call “poor values.” I will not call them poor values, but rather, values that may lead to fluctuating happiness and poor effect on health, well-being, and relationships.
However, if whatever we choose to pursue…teaching, be a dentist, an athlete, a CEO, a parent, living in San Diego, going back to school…whatever, is done, not to be better than others, but rather to help others, we are metaphorically traveling another path.
On this other path, of living lives aimed toward contributing to others, it seems we experience more what researchers call authentic-durable happiness. Authentic-durable happiness (ADH) is relatively unaffected by outer circumstances. Authentic-durable happiness is associated with feelings of inner peace and a sense of having more than enough. Harmony, understanding, empathy, and helping will be values that govern this type of happiness. We experience a sense of connection to others and to nature. The ego is quiet. We are self-transcendent, selfless (please note that I am not talking about neglecting self-care).
This sort of research is scientifically young, though from the wisdom of the ages, old stuff. Despite all that I have written, it is hard for me to believe, we can only travel one of those two paths. Luckily, we do not have to take anyone’s word for it. We can examine the “two roads,”; notice when, how, why they diverge, where they seem to lead.
These two roads - the “me” versus “we” paths can sometimes show up in obituaries or eulogies. There are a few noticeable recounts of life that are long and full of dazzling, impressive accomplishments.
Then there was another, much shorter recount of life. It included the required dates, people, and places. Then the next to last sentence read: “She always had a cup of coffee ready for any poor soul who needed a little company, conversation, and consolation.” Something touched me.
Maybe it is because I am getting older, maybe it is all this isolation, mud, and mush, thinking about dilemmas and values, reading obits, but for whatever reason, I am open to new adventures and imagining the unique joy of taking the road less traveled.
How might we Journey to The Good Life and durable happiness by choosing more selfless values.