Is it Selfish to Seek Personal Happiness?
When I was growing up, I distinctly saw two different approaches to life.
One: you work hard to get the job, the car, the house—and then once you have all those things, you’ll not only be satisfied and happy but you’ll have time to pursue the interests, family life and social life that you envision will actually make you happy.
Two: Start by pursuing your passions, even if they don’t seem to make much money, and on the basis of that happiness, satisfaction and success will come.
My older brother followed the first path and I followed the second. Perhaps it was a generational thing—he felt that happiness came from having the right stuff even if you had to work hard at a high-paying job you didn’t like in order to get it. I felt that happiness came from having the freedom to do what you loved in life, even if it didn’t pay much.
And then I learned that you could take the idea of basing your decisions on happiness a step further.
Three: “Expansion of happiness is the purpose of creation.” Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of the Transcendental Meditation technique, wrote that in his book the Science of Being and Art of Living in 1963, but I didn’t read it until 1972, the year I learned to meditate as a sophomore in college.
Whoa, now that blew my socks off. This was an entirely new idea to me and to most people I knew.
In the Science of Being, Maharishi’s main message was “first meditate and then act.” He explained that the field of true happiness— absolute bliss consciousness ( sat chit ānanda in Sanskrit) — is inside of us. And it can be easily accessed by contacting that transcendental field of pure bliss during the Transcendental Meditation technique.
And when you experience more inner bliss, energy and peace during meditation, you naturally find yourself feeling more happy, dynamic and peaceful outside of meditation, in your daily life.
Maharishi also pointed out that just as a forest can only be green if the individual trees are green, our world will be peaceful only when the individuals within it are experiencing inner peace. Meditation not only helps us fulfill our individual aspirations to be more happy, successful and healthy — it also helps us to create a more healthy society and world.
This made sense to me when I read it, since I was already meditating 20 minutes twice a day, and I was already finding that life was somehow easier, that I didn’t have to study as hard, that frustration was less, that I felt more pure contentment and peace inside. I was able to function better as a friend, a daughter, and a student teacher.
In our society, where achievement and hard work are so highly valued, it’s sometimes hard to explain that you are not being selfish by taking time twice a day to meditate. Moms, especially, have a hard time putting their own happiness, their own “me time” at the top of a list of priorities.
Yet if a mother can keep her own emotional balance by meditating twice a day, she is going to be in a much better position to radiate love to her family than if she feels tired, angry, and resentful due to the many responsibilities of her life.
Recently I was intrigued to read a NY Times Opinionator blog by Daniel M. Haybron, philosophy professor at St. Louis University and author of Happiness: A Very Short Introduction that summed up the research on happiness, and how we, as a society, view happiness. It seemed to parallel the changes in my personal views.
Haybron traces his own responses to three evolving definitions of happiness:
- Happiness = life satisfaction. This has been the prevalent definition of happiness for the past 30 years, and is the definition behind much of the research on happiness. This is more of a self-reflective review of whether your life is turning out the way you want it to, Haybron explains. Yet, Haybron points out, this has little to do with our day-to-day experience of happiness, which is more about feelings.
- Happiness = feeling good. Also popular with researchers, this correlates happiness with pleasure, and unhappiness with pain or suffering. In the view of philosophers such as Epicurus and John Stuart Mill, this is “hedonism” about happiness. It defines happiness as the superficial pursuit of pleasure, which also falls short, Haybron believes.
- Happiness = a state of emotional well-being. This is a more complex understanding of happiness as the opposite of anxiety or depression, which Haybron describes as “someone in good spirits, quick to laugh and slow to anger, at peace and untroubled, confident and comfortable in your own skin, engaged, energetic and full of life.” Happiness as a state of being was not even discussed as a definition of happiness until 20 years ago, and still is not widely embraced by researchers.
And then, to my delight, Haybron went on to say that he found even this more expanded view of happiness to be incomplete. “Our very language is deficient, and so we sometimes reach for other expressions that better convey the depth and richness of happiness: happiness as a matter of the psyche, spirit or soul,” he wrote.
And this is really the crux of the matter. Happiness is not a frivolous, superficial pursuit — it is embedded in our nature as human beings. The impulse to seek happiness and fulfillment is the basic impulse of life, which is, as Haybron wrote, “why there is a long history of philosophical thought that conceives of humans flourishing in terms of the fulfillment of the self.”
Haybron goes on to write, “Human well-being, on this sort of view, means living in accordance with your nature, with who you are. On this way of thinking, we might regard happiness as a central part of self-fulfillment.”
So beautifully expressed. So wonderful to hear a modern philosopher talking about the pursuit of happiness as a spiritual need that is essential to life.
Taking time to practice the Transcendental Meditation technique twice a day is not a superficial pursuit. By directly contacting the field of pure happiness through the TM technique, we infuse happiness into our actions and environment. Through regular practice, stress and strain falls away, and our true nature—happiness—becomes our natural state of mind. Then every action we take, every interaction with our friends, family and co-workers, spontaneously becomes a wave of joy, without us having to try to be happy.
As Maharishi wrote in the Science of Being, “The only way to make the entire field of action joyful is to fill the mind with joy. This can only be accomplished through the experience of Being.”
About the Author
Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the author of six books, including The Ramayana: A New Retelling of Valmiki’s Ancient Epic—Complete and Comprehensive, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.
More Posts by Linda
- Tired and Burned Out? Transcendental Meditation Can Help: An Interview with Dr. Nancy Lonsdorf, MD
- Worried About the Future? Six Ways to Calm Your Anxiety
- What Do You Carry in Your Self-Care Tool Kit?
- Five Strategies for Family Caregivers
- From the Streets to College in Four Months: The Communiversity of South Africa Empowers Underserved Youth in Cape Town