Below is an edited version of a talk to the ‘Happiness and Its Causes’ Conference, given in Sydney on June 15, 2007, by Clive Hamilton. The original may be found on the Eureka Street website. Eureka Street is a magazine produced by the Australian Jesuit province.
We all want to live a happy life. But what do we think of when we think of our own happiness? If asked, most of us would talk about having loving and supportive relationships with family and friends, and of having fulfilling and stimulating work, whether paid or unpaid.
Yet in today’s society, dominated by the techniques of marketing and the culture of consumption, we are being persuaded to think of our happiness in a quite different way – as the gratification of our desires. We can be happy by maximising the number of physical and emotional highs and limiting the lows. Increasingly, we think we can find happiness by buying new clothes or a new car, by getting a pay rise, or by taking some drugs that lift our mood or by having better sex.
Enormous resources are devoted to persuading us that gratification of our desires is the path to happiness. The culture of marketing, while designed to sell us particular products, also contains a deeper and rather insidious message – that money and what it buys is the key to the good life.
But the truth is that seeking to gratify our desires can never be the path to happiness. If it were, then we could all take happiness pills and float through life on a cloud of euphoria. So the promises of the consumer society are false. Although we are told that having more money and consuming more will make us happy, the truth is that this sort of society can reproduce itself each day only by making us feel dissatisfied with what we have. It has to make us feel deprived and restless and always yearning for more. In this way it creates new wants for the next thing – a plasma TV, a bigger house, a better-paying job. In such a society our happiness depends on us being made to feel unhappy.
Actually, this idea is not peculiar to those living in modern consumer society, but applies to everyone who stakes his or her happiness on superficial notions of gratification. At around 50 years of age, Leo Tolstoy was at the height of his career. He wrote that, by any conventional measure, his fame, family life and success should have made him “completely happy”. Yet he confessed that his life had become flat and without meaning. “I felt”, he wrote, “that something had broken within me on which my life had always rested, and that I had nothing left to hold on to, and that morally my life had stopped. An invincible force impelled me to get rid of my existence, in one way or another.”
Tolstoy took the inner journey, with all of its twists and turns until, one day, he realised that what he was seeking was with him all along. “I gave up the life of the conventional world,” he wrote, “recognising it to be no life, but a parody on life, which its superfluities simply keep us from comprehending.”
In contrast to the superficial self that we seek to gratify – with all of its superfluities – the only way to find true happiness is to find and live according to our true selves. We cannot be happy if we do not know who we are, or if we are trying to create a new self according to fashion, or to impress others or because of some belief about how to become happy that we have read in a book.
But if we are to live according to our true selves, we must first discover who we are. This may not be easy; it could be a long and arduous task. We cannot discover who we are from our CVs or by a sneak preview of our obituaries. We cannot discover who we are by asking other people; they will describe aspects of our personalities and our bodies according to what they like and dislike.
We cannot discover who we are by looking in the mirror; we can only see the surface layer in the glass, and we interpret what we see through our conditioned eyes, which can deceive us. A skilled artist may be able to paint a picture of us that reveals something deep within that we have refused to see, but such shattering experiences are rare.
We can really know who we are only by casting off all external forms and going inwards. We must go in search of the inner self. If we do make this journey, what are we likely to find? The 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer observed that our consciousness is at its brightest as we focus our attention on the external world, the world of things.
As we turn our attention inwards, our consciousness becomes clouded and our vision becomes obscure. If we press on and follow the path to our innermost recesses, darkness envelops us and all knowledge seems to cease. This is where we find the inner centre, the true and unchanging self. On this journey the superficial self is left far behind and we begin to understand that at this “root point of existence” the individuality that we prize so highly is nowhere to be found and seems no more than a chimera. We realise that, at its deepest level, our inner self joins us to all things and is common to us all.
In contrast to the frenetic striving of the everyday world – the world of our exterior selves with its successes and failures – we discover at this root point of existence the “profoundest peace”.
As we learn about our true selves, it slowly dawns on us that our superficial self’s pursuit of happiness – satisfying our craving for money, beauty, success and so on – is no more than a trick played on us, a deception in which we collaborate. And we come to see that it is a mistake to devote ourselves to our own happiness; that we are not here to try to live a happy life but a meaningful one.
This may be very difficult to accept because we have a strong attachment to our superficial selves. A meaningful life may appear impossible, scary or even self-indulgent. But it is simply what happens when we make that inner journey. In reality, whether we realise it or not, our lives revolve around the true self, the unchanging essence. Even the pursuit of happiness by the superficial self can be understood as a mistaken attempt to respond to the pull of the true self, an outer journey that serves as a pale substitute for the inner journey.
For some who have found the inner core, it is tempting to stay in its warm embrace; like returning to the womb to escape from the world. After all, who wants to go back to the trials and stresses of everyday life? But we cannot stay there and must return to the mundane world. Yet we return with a new understanding, one in which we recognise that the pursuit of our own happiness is in vain.
This may seem like a paradox, for if the inner journey is not in pursuit of happiness what is its purpose? It is to find purpose itself. Having found it, the task is to express it in everyday life through a vocation or calling that seems right. It may take a long time to discover what that calling is and it may not be much consolation to realise when you have found it that the ‘wasted’ years were in fact a necessary part of the journey.
It doesn’t mean that when you have found your niche then life will be blissful, at least not on the day-to-day plane. All lives are full of struggle and doubt; they are never blissful, except fleetingly. But there is a deeper level at which contentment does flow from finding one’s niche; it is the sense that one has found one’s place in the world.