Doing good and being happy
Shira Sebban | 18 November 2014
I recently surprised myself by turning down a rare opportunity to attain what I had long considered my dream job. Having compromised my career for motherhood for many years, I had often compared myself to those I consider high achievers, judging myself as coming up short.
Yet here I was saying no. For weeks I had toyed with the proposal, feeling flattered. At last I felt needed by someone other than family and community. I could contribute to society at large. After all, my children were now older and surely able to cope. Doubts lingered, however. The job would be all consuming. Was this really what I wanted?
Then the realisation hit me. I rather liked my life. True, I had to juggle work and family and never got the balance quite right. But I suddenly saw how much I cherish the time I have to write, and the precious hours I spend with my children, who are growing up so fast, not to mention the importance I place on my voluntary work. I was not prepared to sacrifice any of them for another job, which I now recognised was no longer even my dream vocation.
That realisation has been a major step in my finding happiness. But not necessarily the emotional state of happiness, which Hugh Mackay in his 2013 book The Good Life, dismisses as ‘the most elusive and unpredictable of emotions’, but rather happiness in its original sense, meaning to flourish.
While Mackay doesn’t like using the word ‘happiness’, lest it be confused with its modern, more selfish meaning of how you may feel at a particular moment, I don’t see any problem in striving to discover ‘the happy life’, becoming fully and meaningfully engaged in whatever is on offer.
Like many of us, I have often thought that what really matters is what makes us happy. We’re all going to die some day and few will long be remembered. So why not make the most of life? Indeed, didn’t the Americans think so highly of the pursuit of happiness that they enshrined it as an inalienable right in the Declaration of Independence?
Rather than seeking external factors such as pleasure, wealth, or honour, Mackay, however, argues that we should aim to live ‘the good life’, by which he means being motivated largely by compassion, treating others according to the Golden Rule of how we would like to be treated ourselves.
‘We ought to pursue goodness for its own sake… No one can promise you that a life lived for others will bring you a deep sense of satisfaction, but it’s certain that nothing else will.’
In contrast, people of faith seem able to find an opportunity for growth, spirituality and meaning in every good deed they do and each bit of wisdom they acquire, apparently experiencing true happiness along the way. No wonder the 2011 Gallup survey found that the very religious are amongst the happiest in the US!
In other words, doing good can make you happy and when you’re happy, you do more good. So happiness is actually a moral obligation.
As a child, my family urged me to find an interest in life to sustain me. Indeed, my grandfather lived as if on an insatiable intellectual quest, telling me, ‘life is full of exciting curiosities, joy and deep feeling for the world’s mysteries’. My family’s view of life involved plenty of struggle towards a noble cause – a view former Commonwealth Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has identified as a form of happiness: ‘the happiness that comes from challenge, … a life that has its setbacks … there is fulfilment, passion … and moments of exhilaration’.
Today my children are taught a broader idea of happiness. Influenced by positive psychology, their teachers get them to identify their ‘signature strengths’, which they are to use to lead engaged and meaningful lives. This reflects the ancient wisdom: ‘Raise a child according to their way’ (Proverbs 22:6). In other words, you need to concentrate on what works for you.
My children are also taught gratitude. As the ancients explained, ‘Who is rich? The one who appreciates what he has’ (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1).
Developing positive relationships is another area of focus. After all, we are social creatures who need connection through family, friendship and community. Surely such ‘social happiness’ is crucial to a society’s survival. I certainly intend to continue focusing on relationships, finding meaning and purpose through work and community, and hopefully savouring many emotionally happy moments along the way.
Shira Sebban is a Sydney writer and editor who is vice-president of the Board of her children’s school.