When you think of happiness, what comes to mind?
Here’s what comes to lots of minds (over 440,000,000) these days
But our western culture views happiness through a different lens than the ancient Greeks did. Where you and I might equate happiness with an emotion brought on by worldly pleasures, the Greeks defined happiness as a life well lived, a life focused on serving others, and a life contributing to the well-being of others. Happiness, to Aristotle and his band of brainiacs, was the goal of life. It was not something you attained via wealth, power, or status for one’s own consumption.
You and I must deal with the contemporary lie that claims that in order to be happy we must do what we can to serve ourselves, to collect material possessions, to be successful in our chosen fields, and to gain wealth. Happiness is not these things. It is so much more. It is something that can only be found when we look beyond ourselves to the needs and welfare of our fellow human beings.
Some years back I read a Harvard Business Review article titled “How Will You Measure Your Life?” by Clayton Christensen. He thoughtfully outlines the case for creating a strategy for life and folds his own life on top of the “model” for application. He ends the article by saying.
“This past year I was diagnosed with cancer and faced the possibility that my life would end sooner than I’d planned. Thankfully, it now looks as if I will be spared. But the experience has given me important insight into my life. I have a pretty clear idea of how my ideas have generated enormous revenue for companies that have used my research: I know I’ve had a substantial impact. But as I’ve confronted this disease, it’s been interesting to see how unimportant that impact is to me now. I’ve concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life isn’t dollars but individual people whose lives I have touched.”
Don’t wait for an illness or a blow out to set the rule on the correct things to measure in life.
Another glaring difference between the ancients’ view of flourishing and our view relates to time—specifically, immediacy versus longevity. While our focus tends to be immediate, theirs tended to be lasting. We think happiness can be grabbed now, as if we could pick it up on special at Macy's. But Aristotle attached the concept of enduring to happiness. He took the long view.
We can attain enduring happiness only when we extend our horizon. There we will survey our lives and either say we did what we could to help others, to live well and contribute to the good of all society or we will come face to face with the truth that selfish pursuits led us to a hollow ending, concluding regretfully, “If I only knew then what I know now.”
It is impossible to flourish with a skewed view of happiness. Happiness is not just about us but it’s also about others. It’s not just about the “now” but also the “then.” Thought provoking, isn’t it?
For more thoughts on flourishing, preorder Steve's upcoming book here.