"Health is the greatest possession. Contentment is the greatest treasure. Confidence is the greatest friend. Non-being is the greatest joy." ~ Lau-tzu
I continue to find myself amazed, yet not surprised, that the same human flaws have perpetuated, if not strengthened, over the last 5000 years or so of recorded human history. The featured quote from Lau-tzu (604BC - 531BC) demonstrates that our misguided and relentless pursuit of happiness has persisted for at least three millenniums, if not since the beginning of human existence, but to our detriment, we continue to overlook the wisdom of contentment...
In fact, I hesitated to write this post because the ideas found within it have been written and said so many times, yet their virtues are rarely applied, that it seems almost futile to repeat the wisdom. The underlying purpose of this post, therefore, is the profound irony in that the "secret" to happiness is really no secret at all. We all know, at least somewhere buried within us, that our relentless pursuit of happiness is flawed... yet we are led by something that tells us to pursue it anyway...
"All truly wise thoughts have been thought already thousands of times; but to make them truly ours, we must think them over again honestly, till they take root in our personal experience." ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
A large part of my usage of philosophy in my posts and in my day-to-day life is not just to leverage the knowledge and wisdom of the greatest thinkers in history but to illustrate that the answers to our questions of life already exist -- and they have existed for thousands of years. We simply need to discover them and apply them.
Why don't we follow that wisdom?
Last night, while I was flipping through the pages of a few my favorite books for some blog post ideas, I happened to catch a glimpse of a 60 Minutes piece, And The Happiest Place on Earth Is..., by Morley Safer. I decided to move into the next room and watch it...
While I was curious as to where "the happiest place on Earth" would be, I was especially interested in what the people of this happy place would say and if their attitudes and values align with the timeless wisdom of philosophy that we study here on this blog every week...
"My opinion is that you never find happiness until you stop looking for it." ~ Chuang Tzu
The happiest place on Earth, according to a scientific survey conducted by Leicester University in England, was Denmark. Here are a few things the Danes had to say about their happiness when Mr. Safer asked, "Just describe for me the qualities that a successful person would have in this country:"
Another Dane responded that happiness "is more about the softer values, such as not being stressed, and feeling passionate about what I'm doing. Maybe this job is not gonna pay me a lot of money. But I'm gonna love getting up and doing it every day."
"If thou wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches but take away from his desires." ~ Epicurus
A common thread throughout the interviews with the Danish people is that they did not reflect on their existence and describe it as "happy." They considered themselves as "content," which is a direct result of keeping expectations low and the realization that more money does not necessarily mean more happiness.
Their contentedness is not a result of great wealth, as most of us may tend to guess, and it is quite telling that America is number 23 on the list, yet there is arguably more monetary wealth and opportunity here than anywhere else in the world.
The people of Denmark have not struck upon anything new -- they simply practice, without any real conscious choice, the wisdom and virtue of contentment...
"Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you will miss it. For success, like happiness, can not be pursued; and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one's dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see -- in the long run, I say! -- success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it." ~ Viktor Frankl
Ironically, the book I was flipping through as the 60 Minutes piece was airing was Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. I planned to build today's post on the preceding quote but I believe it to be fitting to end the post with his wisdom... and a few more questions for you:
Is the pursuit of happiness a flawed pursuit? Assuming most of us know this, why do we continue with this flawed pursuit?
If it is happiness that we wish to find, how can we find it if we do not really know what it is? If we do not begin our quest for happiness by defining it, how do we know when to stop looking for it?
If you have more monetary and material wealth now than you did, say 10 years ago, can you honestly say that your happiness increased incrementally with your wealth over that time frame?
Is happiness created or does it just happen?