It is my opinion that over the centuries, spiritual and moral thinkers have prescribed ways of living that lead to greater happiness over the course of a lifetime, and the best of them from Socrates to Buddha, from Jesus to Maimonides, have powerfully lived out what they taught.
The goal of a good life, they have all agreed, is a deep happiness consistent with simplicity, integrity, and a profound generosity. The great thinkers have never thought of happiness as primarily rooted in the hedonic indulgence of the senses, but rather they have described a sense of well-being and satisfaction that comes from a higher purpose pursued over time. Opinion has differed as to how happy we can expect ...view middle of the document...
Henry David Thoreau wrote that love is "the only investment that never fails." Abraham Lincoln stated, "When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad, and that is my religion." It is said that Lincoln was prone to occasional melancholy. One way he overcame this was by doing "unto others" in the many small acts of neighborly kindness for which he was so well known. Ralph Waldo Emerson described the path to happiness thus: "No man can sincerely help another without helping himself."
Sincerely is the key word. There is an after-glow when we do good, a satisfaction that flows from authentic giving, and not from actions that are primarily motivated by self-concern. Psalm 11:25 reads, "Those who refresh others are themselves refreshed." The "kitchen table" wisdom around this thesis is perennial.
A happier life revolves around at least one immaterial good - love. We cannot grasp Gift-love like a coin, but this warmth and concern for another is more real and meaningful than anything we can possess. Here is an exercise: close your eyes and intensely imagine giving to the person in your life who you love most, and then open your eyes and feel your heart strangely warmed. This state of being and related action in Gift-love is the Highest Spiritual Good for each of first because giving does so much for others, and secondarily, because it is a key source of joy and health for givers.
When we cultivate sincere Gift-love through day-to-day practice, we inadvertently discover the great paradox that underlies fuller human flourishing - in the giving of self lies the surprising discovery of a happier and healthier self. This paradox underlies most spiritual and moral wisdom.
I believe sustainable happiness, which is an enduring inner joy, does not lie in worldly power and fame, although a good life will often be recognized and celebrated as such.
We all have real needs for tangible possessions, and having the basics is naturally going to relieve stress, but ample research and my own experience shows that sustainable happiness does not come from that new pair of pricey designer jeans or a fancier car. These external successes are fleeting victories on the "hedonic treadmill" even at their best. Sustainable happiness comes mostly from within us. Oliver Wendell Holmes put this point well: "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us." Tolstoy grasped this by emphasizing that, "the kingdom of heaven is within you" (Luke 17:20). So we very often encounter people who do not have much, but they do have radiant and joyful Gift-love, and their smile is so natural, so real, and so sincere.
Many difficult circumstances befall us all, and in the end, no one gets out of life alive. But it is to our great advantage to find a way through life in Gift-love, for the alternatives of bitterness and hostility will harm us over time like acid on metal. We are ultimately in charge of our responses to life, something I am...