Anyone who knows me well would likely describe me as a pessimist. And by “pessimist,” they mean “miserable.” As someone who can frequently be found drowning in work and responsibilities, I understand where they’re coming from. While I agree with them to an extent, I must point out a fatal flaw in their argument: their regressive understanding of happiness. In an ever-changing world, happiness has become more than just plastering forced smiles on our faces and suppressing our negative feelings. Today, a happy life is predicated on our humanity: the degree to which we serve others and find meaning and fulfillment in our daily actions.
Our 24-hour news cycle constantly reminds us of health care disparities, lives lost at the hands of the police, global unrest and the looming threat of climate change. It can be difficult to be optimistic. The 2019 World Happiness Report confirmed this sentiment, reporting a decrease in levels of happiness and mental health in the U.S., even though rates of violent crime and unemployment had fallen to all-time lows by the end of that year. Ingrid Fetell Lee, author of “Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness,” believes the source of this phenomenon to be the subjective nature of happiness. Maintaining a consistently positive outlook on life is challenging, but Lee finds solace in every joyful, fleeting moment she can.
“I don’t need to be happy to feel joy,” Lee told New York Times reporter Laura Holson. “I don’t have to worry about making everything awesome in my life. … I don’t think about happiness anymore; I think about joy. And if you string together enough moments of joy, maybe you can have a happy life.”
To Lee, joy does not mean a constant state of happiness, but rather a greater sense of fulfillment and satisfaction in life along with general positivity.
Associate Professor of Social Psychology at Arizona State University Michelle Shiota agrees with Lee, noting that joy can be found in quiet and “shouldn’t always mean high arousal.” She also argued that while joy, as a general state of happiness, can be an essential part of our lives, we should not frown upon moments of anger, sadness and disappointment.
“What people call negative emotions are a symptom that something is wrong and we have to change … [when, in reality,] we learn from them,” Shiota told Holson.
She is absolutely right. In a world where the pressure to succeed is constantly increasing, it’s nearly impossible to avoid experiencing some form of negativity. Reminders of negativity are everywhere, and we must be motivated — not discouraged — to achieve success in all aspects of life.
While completing a mundane task may not lend itself to instant happiness, we must redefine happiness, not as a feeling of immediate pleasure, but rather as a deeper sense of fulfillment and meaning in our lives. For example, although volunteering can be draining, especially after a long day at work or school, the benefits that donating your time have on your community far outweigh any potential downsides. Although happy moments come and go, meaning will always be present: it dictates our decisions, determines our future and gives us a reason to wake up every day. We can find examples of people who lead meaningful lives all around us.
Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychologist and neurologist in Vienna, is a shining example. When Frankl was faced with a life-altering decision, he chose to forgo fleeting happiness and instead stayed true to his values.
In 1941, Frankl was granted a visa to America at the peak of his scientific career. At the time, Nazis were beginning their search for Jews in his home country of Austria and quickly taking them to concentration camps; he knew that his parents, also located in Vienna, would soon be next.
As a newly married man with a visa, Frankl wished to immigrate to America in search of new opportunities and safety from the Nazi Party. However, he was also aware of his responsibility to take care of his parents amid the ongoing crisis. When he came home one day to find a piece of marble taken from a nearby destroyed synagogue lying on his table — engraved with a message about honoring our mothers and fathers, Frankl immediately knew his only option was to serve and protect his parents and stay in Vienna. No new opportunity was worth sacrificing his precious family.
In 1945, Frankl was successfully liberated from a Nazi concentration camp, where he worked as a therapist with suicidal inmates. Frankl realized there that “a man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being … will never be able to throw away his life.”
Although most of us will never face a choice as grave as Frankl’s, his ache to serve others highlights an underlying need present within us all — it’s what makes us human. I became aware of this basic human need a week before my 15th birthday, when I was faced with an event that would permanently change my outlook on life for the better.
On May 1, 2016, my grandmother passed away. From the moment I heard the news of her untimely death, I was overwhelmed with memories of calls I ignored, signs of her pain that I shrugged off and conversations I didn’t fully process. Instead of spending time with my grandmother, I was only focused on my selfish pursuit of success, unaware of the limited time I had left with her. Before I could realize my mistakes, the time I had left was gone. My grandmother was always there for me and put her needs before mine, so why couldn’t I have done the same for her? Questions, thoughts, fears and regrets led me into a state of constant grief.
Instead of mulling over those negative feelings, I decided to make a measurable change in my life. From that moment on, I frequently reached out to distant family members, became more aware of my role as a South Asian and Muslim woman and took time out of my week to volunteer, donate to charities and work to assist underserved members of my community. Instead of viewing life through an individualistic, biased lens, I took the focus off of myself and onto the people around me.
Hopefully, by shifting your perspective away from meaningless pursuits of shallow pleasure, you can also come to understand that, by giving to others, we are “acknowledging that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness,” Atlantic writer Emily Esfahani Smith wrote.
By helping those around us, we can find a deeper sense of purpose in our lives. Although altruistic actions may not provide immediate benefits to us, it’s important to realize that, in order to live a happy life, we must work to gradually make the world we inhabit a better place. So, volunteer or donate to those in need whenever you can. Make time for meaningful conversations with friends and family. Support critical social issues. Take care of the environment. But, most importantly, don’t focus on actions that will only provide fleeting moments of happiness.
After all, as Frankl once said, “it is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”
Sara Khan (23C) is from Fairfax, Virginia.