Part 2 of an Exploration on Happiness
If you ask many of us what is the purpose of life, we might answer: it is to be happy. The American Declaration of Independence called for the pursuit of happiness as a founding principle. What does it mean to pursue happiness and is it possible that happiness actually flees when we pursue it? Take this story.
A busy New York businessman was persuaded by his wife to take a vacation in Mexico. Strolling on a beach late morning he encountered a fisherman leaning back against his boat on the beach, gazing lazily out at the ocean.
“It’s a beautiful day,” said the businessman to the fisherman, who nodded back. “Shouldn’t you be out fishing”? he asked. “Well,” said the fisherman, “I have already made my catch and I am done for the day.” The businessman grimaced and responded, “Yes but couldn’t you catch more if you stayed out longer?”
“I could but why?” asked the fisherman. “Well!” declared the businessman, “you’d make more money.” “What would I do with more money?” asked the fisherman. “Well,” gushed the businessman, “you could buy another boat and hire someone else to fish for you. With the profits, you could even get more boats and employees, perhaps even open up a canning plant and grow quite rich!”
“And then what,” asked the fisherman, amused. “Well, then you could retire happily,” proclaimed the businessman. “Okay,” said the fisherman, “and what would I do then?” “Well then,” said the businessman, “you could sit out on the beach and relax by the ocean.”
“Ah!” smiled the fisherman bringing his hat down over his eyes, “that’s exactly what I am doing now!”
The two characters in this story had two very contrasting views of happiness. The businessman saw it as the final reward of a long life of effort and achievement. For the fisherman, happiness was something to be enjoyed as a daily practice. The businessman may indeed get to retire with a lot of money to enjoy a bit of luxury and leisure, but there is no guarantee that he’d live that long or enjoy good health, or even make the money in the end despite a lifetime of effort and risk.
So, is happiness something to be pursued into the future or enjoyed now in the moment where we can find it? There is a lot to enjoy if we look and notice — the blue sky, being alive, the next breath. In looking for big things, we lose the small things that we already have and take for granted in the daily flow of our lives.
The research about flow sees that contentment is about finding yourself in the zone where you forget yourself. You just are present, fully absorbed in what you are doing, not stuck in the past or thinking about the future. Picture a musician playing, a painter painting, a sportsperson in a game, a pair of lovers. They are focused, absorbed in the joy of what they are doing. Time stops. Thought stops, Even the question of happiness vanishes. There is only being in the present.
At the end of his time, John Lennon sang of ths awareness in his song Watching the Wheels:
I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll
No longer riding on the merry-go-round
I just had to let it go
The thing is that the wheel of life is always turning. The rim and hub both turn but the pace is not quite the same. We can latch our sense of being to the rim and spin around dizzily as we work to do more, or we can center ourselves at the hub of the wheel, staying calm and present in the midst of motion. If our being is centered at the hub, we can radiate a sense of calm to the activity at the rim — much like the athletes playing in a state of flow. If our sense of being is anchored to the activity at the rim, we transfer this busyness to our core, feeling frenetic and harried. I often find myself in both places and have to remind myself to return to the center. Finding a way to intentionally claim calmness in motion, and peacefulness in activity, is key to being happy. Here contentment becomes a practice, a habit, much as it did for the Mexican fisherman reclining on the beach.
The fisherman fished to live, but he made a habit of being happy, every day. So, perhaps the challenge is not to pursue happiness to the end of our days, but to claim it now, while we can, wherever we can, and in whatever we do.