“There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it
As the new year begins, many of us are reflecting on the opportunities it brings - and setting goals in pursuit of those things. Whether it’s a promotion, getting back in shape, investments and savings, or finally filling that romantic void - we’re all hoping for something to pan out for us this year. This is our pursuit of happiness.
Happiness, as it turns out - at least the lasting kind - is an elusive thing. The search, however, can be narrowed down by avoiding the three well-worn stages of unhappiness.
The Simple Idealist
The simple person believes that his or her main problem is circumstances. If I only had this opportunity or that body - I would be happy. Compounding the problem are the promises of the world: “Buy this!” and “Attain that!”
It is nearly impossible, especially in the age of advertisement, to avoid this path altogether. Most of us enter adulthood on it - convinced that happiness lies in an education, a marriage, a career. But what happens when we get those things? We find that although the things themselves are worth having, they don’t satisfy as we had hoped, as we had been promised they would.
Perhaps the main barrier to happiness isn’t circumstances. It seems that every year there is a celebrity tragedy to prove the point that those with fame, fortune, intelligence, and good looks can still be miserable.
The Standing Stoic
There is an apocryphal story of Alexander the Great having conquered his way all the way into India. When he arrived, he met a group of wise men living in the wilderness. For amusement, he summoned their leader to hear what the man had to say. “I have conquered the world,” Alexander told him. The wise man replied, “And I have conquered my desire to conquer the world.”
The next stage of unhappiness is a bit more subtle. Rather than circumstances, this “realistic” person sees desires as the barrier to happiness. The logic of “If I could only expect less, then I would not be so disappointed” applies. When everyone else seems to be happy, it’s natural to blame one’s self. This journey, however, offers no destination. In fact, there are not even steps. The goal is only a mindset. What’s the use in following along with everyone else? Stop and stay where you are, just expect less.
Such philosophies may help to alleviate the unhappiness of dashed expectations, but they can never bring joy.
The Seated Critic
The last stage of unhappiness faults neither circumstances nor desires, but the world itself. This is the seat of cynicism. “How naive was I,” laments the cynic, “to think that happiness was even possible.” Neither walking on the world’s path to “success” nor attempting any longer to “find contentment within,” the only solace for the cynic is the thought that everyone else is naive - that there is no use in seeking that which can never be found.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth captures the sentiment:
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Could there be another way? Is lasting happiness more than a false promise? What if this whole progression from naiveté to hopelessness can be avoided altogether?
Over three thousand years ago, a man named David penned these words:
“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!”
And so the book of Psalms begins, with the word “blessed.” This, my friends, is what we are all after.
This year, let’s examine this ancient path to blessedness together. What do we have to lose? We already know where the other paths lead.