In recent years, I have spoken to several people who sleep on the streets. I expected to find that those who lived on the streets were there due to misfortune and that, given the opportunity, they would gladly adopt a better life. And to be sure, some of them did fit that description.
Happiness and Escape
Everyone I spoke to is a victim in the true sense of the word. Some were escaping poverty, some were outcasts, and some were down on their luck. But some of them were on the streets of their own free will. The homeless life was their path to happiness. For them, life on the streets provided ready access to the things they needed to feel alive. Their definition of happiness is to escape pain, responsibility, and the judgment of those they cannot please. They choose the happiness of chemical stimulants above all else.
I do not intend to comment here either on the incredible difficulty and pain caused by addiction or to point fingers and trigger moral outrage. My point is simple. If our goal is a temporary feeling of happiness, and only that feeling, the addict has the problem solved. But disengaging from reality will not provide the sort of happiness that brings long-term fulfillment and prosperity.
A Deeper Kind of Happy
Happiness is a state of well-being or contentment. Sometimes a pleasurable or satisfying experience gives us an endorphin rush. What I am seeking, however, is long-term happiness. Perhaps the better word for this sort of happiness is joy. If what you want is momentary happiness, emulate the addict. If you want joy, you’ll find it when you’re not looking. You will find it in utter absorption in work and activities you love and ultimately in the love of others.
“Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what You are doing, You will be successful.” — Albert Schweitzer
In his book, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis describes his search for joy. His desired feelings of contentment, sweetness, and longing came rarely and always briefly. When he tried to recreate them, he always failed. Lewis, more than anyone, has helped me understand this phenomenon. Feelings arise, not as internal states alone, but as a byproduct of being fully engaged with others.
Lewis says, “It seemed to me self-evident that one essential property of love, hate, fear, hope, or desire was attention to their object. To cease thinking about or attending to the woman is, so far, to cease loving; to cease thinking about or attending to the dreaded thing is, so far, to cease being afraid. But to attend to your own love or fear is to cease attending to the loved or dreaded object. In other words, the enjoyment and the contemplation of our inner activities are incompatible.”
Rather than adopting the path of the addict who seeks pleasure as an escape, it seems that the wiser way is one of engagement. We cannot escape the pain. The addict defers suffering until the debt his lifestyle accrues results in sickness and decay. Since we cannot escape pain, let’s stop holding back. Instead, why not engage in life fully, serve, love, and seek to contribute value to others through any pain we experience? In the process, I believe we will find true happiness.
A Call to Action
Here is my challenge for the week. Spend a few moments every evening to reflect on your day. Identify something that brought you a feeling of happiness, however fleeting. Capture the circumstances surrounding that feeling in writing. Make it as short as a sentence fragment or as long as a story. Save your thoughts where you can return to them.
On Saturday or Sunday, take five minutes to read the record of your moments of happiness. If possible, summarize what made you happy this week in a sentence or two. Think of this as your definition of happiness.
I hope you will discover that your moments of true happiness are moments of self-forgetfulness. I hope they’ll be moments of listening to others, serving them well, or making them laugh. I hope you will find joy by taking responsibility for your future and lifting others. As our self-consciousness shifts to the background, remarkable things happen.
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