Man walking with freedom

“Man, a being in search of meaning.”
Plato

On our travels around the world, we’ve encountered many people who have told us that they felt something was missing in their lives and that they felt overwhelmed, lonely and unfulfilled. A pessimistic air seems to have engulfed our world, with increased levels of stress due to unemployment or job insecurity, financial hardship, health and relationship issues. Today, we see that despite being in an increasingly networked and connected world via technology, too many people feel disconnected from and untrusting of others—neighbours, co-workers, leaders—and, perhaps most importantly, from themselves.

Unsure of where to turn for solutions, many seek to ‘escape’ through addictions: television, sex, food, alcohol, drugs, shopping, gambling, the Internet, etc. Left unchecked, these pursuits can turn into a vicious, downward cycle and manifest themselves as an endless and joyless undertaking—much like the one experienced by the Greek hero Sisyphus, who was ordered by the gods to push a big rock uphill, only to see it slip out of his hands at the very last moment and roll down the hill once more.

Is happiness the answer?

Some say the solution is to seek happiness. “Just find something that will make you happy” is the advice we hear often. But what does this really mean? Does it mean a person should find something to make them happy in the moment, perhaps distracting themselves from the reality of their life? Although this approach might provide temporary reprieve, we believe that life is not about the pursuit of happiness. Happiness is not the ultimate goal of life. Happiness is an emotion that is linked to pleasure but it is fleeting; it doesn’t last.

We can share a happy moment when we are enjoying a good meal or a good laugh with a friend, but this emotion only lasts a short time. Believing that happiness will relieve us from our anxiety and stress is misguided. What happens when life throws us a curve, when things don’t go well, when we face suffering, illness, or death? What happens when our ability to make sense of life is challenged? The pursuit of happiness will not necessarily help us in these difficult times, nor will it bring us the deep sense of fulfillment we are all looking for in life.

Christopher Reeve after the accident
Superman in reel and real life—Christopher Reeve after the accident; here he discusses the potential benefits of stem cell research at a neuroscience conference at MIT. Pic: Mike Lin

Christopher Reeve, known all over the world for his leading role in Superman, had a bright acting career and a life filled with unlimited possibilities ahead of him. He was thrown from a horse in a tragic accident that broke his neck, and he was challenged to make new sense of his life as a quadriplegic. An inspirational role model for others, Reeve proved to be a real Superman after his accident, not because he chose to pursue happiness as his ultimate goal, but because he searched for something much deeper—the “strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.” Moreover, in spite of having been thrown a curve by life, Reeve not only survived but also thrived in his remaining years by fighting for himself, for his family, and for thousands of people with spinal cord injuries around the world. By engaging with a deeper purpose and extending beyond himself, this real-life Superman found happiness not by pursuing it but by allowing it to ensue as the unintended side-effect of his dedication to a cause greater than himself.

Is it power we want?

Some believe the solution is to seek power over our lives and the lives of others. Power is about being strong and dominant, having [or trying to have] control over other people, events, or things in our environment. Ultimately, though, the pursuit of power leads to emptiness because power over others, and even most of our personal circumstances, is actually an illusion. Power is an exhausting game to play and, like pleasure, it is fleeting and always subject to unforeseen forces. In this connection, the search for power also becomes an endless and joyless undertaking.

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A version of this was first published in the November 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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