Editor’s Note: This is part 1 of a 4 part article.
In the past several weeks, I have had conversations with close friends and less-close friends on the unhappiness of the millennial generation. Elena Sheppard wrote an excellent piece on PolicyMic titled “Why Millennials Aren’t Happy” that I quite enjoyed. Sheppard surveyed the issues that contribute to our existential angst and unhappiness, including striving for an ideal that we will never reach, whether that be through money, status, beauty, or something else Western culture tells us we “have” to attain to be happy, our obsession with instant gratification, and the escapism we partake in to dull our unhappiness and existential angst. Sheppard’s conclusion is that we must learn how to measure our happiness, and to prioritize that happiness. It is here that I intend to pick up the conversation.
At least twice in the past two weeks, I participated in conversations through Facebook comments that went on for much longer than I expected them to. Each one started out with a post on religion and politics, followed by several comments by members of my generation denouncing religion and belief in God in general as silly, stupid, and obviously deserving of ridicule. As a former atheist and recent born-again Christian, I had to jump in to show anyone who cared to read not only that there are stronger arguments for the existence of God and the truth of Christianity than against, but that the root of disbelief in God is of a much deeper nature than “not enough evidence.” Each of these conversations ended with my having the last word because no one could adequately respond to my main point. What that point was I will leave until the end of this piece, but in the meantime I would like to explore the idea of prioritizing happiness.
Can prioritizing happiness really lead to happiness? Or should we be seeking some greater good that will lead to our happiness as a byproduct? C.S. Lewis has something to say on the principle of achieving our end goal through indirect means rather than directly that I think is worth considering:
“The … principle holds, you know, for more everyday matters. Even in social life, you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it. The principle runs through all life from top to bottom.”
Anyone who has ever tried to prioritize his happiness will tell you that it does not work. In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry corrupts the mind of young Dorian, convincing him that the only thing worth pursuing in life is his own happiness, mainly through beauty, adventure, and carnal pleasures. Of course there is nothing wrong with beauty, adventure, or carnal pleasures, but when they are pursued as ultimate things, it leads the type of spiritual destruction we saw unfold in Dorian’s life.
The same can be said of anything in life. Seek the image of perfection on your Facebook profile, and you will constantly be worried about living up to that image you know you can never live up to, resent anything that threatens that image, and hate yourself if you lose that image. Seek the perfect relationship as your ultimate good, and you will want to throw yourself off a bridge when you realize that no relationship will ever be perfect as you experience everyone falling short of your expectations. Nor will any marriage be perfect. Let me save you a few months — no, not even the one with that one special person you’re thinking of right now. Seek validation through your career successes, and you will look down on anyone who hasn’t achieved what you have, while envying anyone who has done better than you. Just as seeking these things as ultimate ends leads to the opposite of what they promise, seeking happiness for its own sake will lead to unhappiness.
Photo Credit: gwilmore