Happiness is a word that’s thrown around like a football. It is repeatedly mentioned as a sentiment of the utmost value, something that we should strive to attain. My question is: how do we get there?
My parents have always told me, “It’s the little things.” In other words, the seemingly trivial blessings are those which often make us the happiest. Personally, I’ve found this to be true. I’m often surprised by the euphoria that comes from finding a new song, having study hall during first period or watching the Saints play on Sunday. I think we, as an upper school, have seen the validity of this statement—just look at the overwhelming reaction when chicken tenders are for lunch.
For centuries, philosophers have been making this claim. Socrates said, “The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.” And John Stuart Mill said, “I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them.” Especially right now, when it feels as if there is less to be thankful for than during a “normal” time, we should look to develop a greater capacity for enjoying the little things.
The assumption that the pursuit of some object of our affection—money, a certain school, an impressive job—will elicit happiness is elusive. We need to instead live our lives by following our virtues. This is not to say ‘don’t work toward your goals,’ by all means do, but we should all first contemplate our virtues, so our goals coincide with that in which we believe.
Recently, for example, before starting my homework, I’ve thought about mindfulness, a value that I am striving to achieve. That simple mental assessment of my principles often prompts me to put away my phone (granted, I do not always do so). Living in accordance with your virtues—whatever they may be—is extremely fulfilling. It provides you with a sense of direction, giving each moment more meaning. Naturally, when you’re thinking about how you want to live, each action is going to feel more deliberate and purposeful.
Thinking about these greater importances can also provide perspective. When you’re thinking about your ultimate aim of living morally, for example, that one poor test score does not feel like the end of the world. Of course, we cannot allow perspective to mitigate the importance of our present tasks and actions. But as an ESD student, knowing how much we stress about grades, tests scores, college applications, etc., I think we could use a bit more perspective in general. We cannot allow these tasks to consume us to the point that we forget our values and how we want to live.
There will always be another object of our affection that we want and don’t have. St. Augustine’s journey toward enlightenment reflects this notion. He attended an affluent school in Carthage, Tunisia was given all of that the physical world had to offer, and yet, ultimately found himself unfilled. He discovered that he was wrongly searching for beauty in himself when he should have been searching for it in the good. As a devout Catholic, St. Augustine would contend that the good is God, and we should therefore look to God for fulfillment, but even if you aren’t religious, you can still find this to be true in looking toward virtue. This makes me think of something the American philosopher Thoreau said, “Happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.” We often attempt seeking happiness directly by pursuing what we think it manifests itself in, but we should look to greater values instead. Happiness, and ultimately joy, can be achieved by living for more than just our worldly desires.