Although many people talk about the importance of pursuing happiness, few truly understand what it is and how it is achieved. The Daily Kansan’s Alexis Knutsen argues that there are two kinds of happiness: exuberance and contentedness, and contends that we should settle for the second.
According to Knutsen, living an exuberant life requires living by society’s standards:
We all have this exalted idea of perfection whether it’s from the model on TV, the top notch attorney who makes so much money it’s coming out his ears, or that kid on scholarship who can play basketball, juggle, and do calculus. We seem to think that being the best, brightest, most ambitious, most talented somehow implies perfection which somehow also implies happiness.
She suggests, however, that this is not the only kind of happiness. Happiness can be achieved in a different and more realistic form. If we settle for being content, we can have “the truest form of happiness,” which requires only an understanding of “how to be happy with what you are given,” i.e. coming to terms with the status quo in your life.
But is our choice truly limited to these two options? Or is there a third, more preferable option that may be pursued?
Suppose that a mechanic owns a small shop where he fixes broken vehicles and machinery. He is very passionate about his work, and strives every day to be the best mechanic he can be, which to him means that he is able to fix anything that comes into his shop. Though his profession does not earn him great wealth or fame, he is happy in the pursuit of his values.
Notice that the mechanic doesn’t achieve his happiness by pursuing what society tells him to pursue. In addition, if the mechanic were merely content, he would accept his flaws rather than continue to try every day to improve himself. A third view, which is neglected by this false choice, is that happiness is what the mechanic realizes: the joy we experience in the pursuit of our own personal values.
Further, the mechanic would never accept the assumption that he is powerless to change any unfortunate circumstances in his life or qualities of his character. For instance, he knows he could not afford to be inattentive or careless on the job, and would work to overcome any such habits in order to pursue the standards of perfection dictated by his passion for his craft. Both the process and the result of this continual striving make it possible for him to achieve an enduring and fulfilling happiness.
The false choice between exuberance and contentedness distorts our understanding of what happiness is and how to achieve it. Happiness neither requires conformity to social standards nor resigned contentedness, but rather a willingness to determine our own individual values and pursue them to the degree of our ability.
The Undercurrent is a magazine distributed at college campuses and communities across the country. We release a print edition once per semester, and in the interim, regularly post additional articles, blog entries, and campus media responses reports to our website.
The Undercurrent's cultural commentary is based on Ayn Rand's philosophy, Objectivism. Objectivism, which animates Ayn Rand's fiction, is a systematic philosophy of life. It holds that the universe is orderly and comprehensible, that man survives by reason, that his life and happiness comprise his highest moral purpose, and that he flourishes only in a society that protects his individual rights.
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