“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
I often think that the reason why everyone is so obsessed with happiness in this part of the world – the West – is because people find it more difficult to be happy here. Why? Well, I think people attach far too much of their identity to their material wealth, as well as to the expectations and illusions of what constitutes a good life. The irony is that being an African and having seen some abject poverty there, and having also travelled to places where absolute poverty is an everyday reality for some people, I maintain that I have witnessed more happiness among those who have less. But having a little, just like having a lot, is overrated. In other words, being poor is not desirable but having more than you need, and indeed being rich, is also complicated. And neither necessarily correlates to happiness.
The good news is, like Emerson, I think there is far more to life than happiness. Happiness is that thing that everybody seeks to find in their lifetime these days; it has become the Utopia of emotions. Of course I would also argue that happiness is much more than an emotion but an actual way of life; it is a choice, it is an experience, and it is a state of being. You can be a happy person and yet also completely embody and express emotions that are the exact opposite of happiness. And I think because part of our human experience is experiencing emotions that vastly contrast happiness, we must find other resolves in this life.
In my undergrad, I made friends with a family that became my family away from home. The dad was a professor at a university and I remember him and I having a discussion about happiness. He said that if you asked people two, three, hundred years ago what they wanted, they would have probably said, “Salvation.” If you ask people today, they say, “I want to be happy.” Happiness has become this thing that people have constructed into something so grandeur that it seems worth chasing at all costs; something that is akin to salvation, if one were to believe in that. But happiness many times is elusive, because of the way we live our lives. We mistake it for fleeting moments of pleasure, for comfort, and sometimes for even getting what we want. And even when we find happiness, when we experience it, when it becomes a part of who we are, I think the soul, the mind, and the body, need more.
You know what (I think) would make me happy? If I were paid to spend the rest of my days writing books and articles and learning everything I could, at my own pace. If I got to travel to every single part of the earth and came into contact with almost every culture. If I met the love of my life and we had wonderful kids and a happy marriage, and a good life with good family and friends. If at the end of my life, I had left a legacy of beautiful creations and made a difference to those who needed a difference; maybe solved a human problem like world hunger. And if at the end of it all, I knew for absolutely certain that I’d die in a state of grace and heaven would be my next stop after my last breath.
But guess what? Not only are any of these things not guaranteed, they are also unlikely to come without effort and suffering and problems and tears. And the truth is we all become better people because of the unexpected trials and heartbreak that we face. We become humble enough to know that we can’t have every single thing we want, and that we must be willing to sacrifice to get the things we want the most. We become attentive to the reality that the world does not revolve around us and our needs, and challenge ourselves to alleviate the pains of others. We become insightful that though happiness matters, it is not the only thing that matters. That doing good, doing the right thing, and having the courage to say and do the things that we are afraid to do, the things that we might be persecuted for, will sometimes involve a sacrifice of this thing we call happiness.
Earlier this year, I submitted a questionnaire to my professor who wanted to get to know us better prior to the quarter starting. She asked, “What would you like said about you after you’re gone?” I wrote down something very simple, “She [I] made a difference.” And in my heart, I guess I believe that everyone wants to make a difference before they are gone, whether in a small or big way. We’re all just searching for meaning after all, aren’t we? We find it in many ways. But we won’t find it if we’re only looking to be happy. Happiness, I think, will come at the end of doing whatever it is we were meant to do on this earth, each day. Even when our days seem like they are filled with anything but happiness. Moreover, I believe all happiness on earth, no matter how much we have of it, can never be truly complete. In my faith, complete happiness comes after death if we have been deemed worthy of that gift.
So in the meantime, don’t just seek a life of happiness but keep yourself busy with your purpose and your neighbor’s purpose. Wake up every day like you mean it, sacrifice inconvenience for kindness; surround yourself with good people. Cry when you must, look for inspiration where you must. Never fall into any extreme; be truthful, be loyal, be a person of class no matter your status. Love more than you think is possible; forgive always. Be willing to sacrifice for what is good. And when you are tired, rest.”