Happiness. We all want it, need it, crave it and maybe even see it as our life’s quest.
But what if the pursuit of happiness was a flawed concept? What if instead we aimed for the more reasonable, more attainable pursuit of satisfaction?
How dull I hear you mumble! And you may be right. Satisfaction just doesn’t have the same ‘bells and whistles’ about it that happiness does (although Mick Jagger made the idea of ‘satisfaction’ sound pretty cool).
So let’s imagine then that we buckled up and pursued satisfaction with gusto and verve, instead of the sparkling happiness. What would we need to do or be to help us attain satisfaction in our lives and be happy with that.
Over the ages, many a great philosopher has pondered over this; what makes a ‘good’ life, starting with Plato in the 4th Century BC.
In fact it’s only been in more recent times, since the Romantic period of the 18th Century, that visions of a greater happiness in life should seem to be one’s life goal.
In his book ‘The Good Life’ Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay expresses concern that western society has this unreasonable belief that “happiness is our birth right… and perfection is a possibility.” Is he on to something?
Likewise the very stoic ancient Roman philosopher Seneca argued that “we will cease to be so angry once we cease to be so hopeful”. Maybe aiming too high is setting ourselves up for failure?
A satisfactory place to start is with the great Greek philosopher, Aristotle and his term ‘Eudaimonia’.
This wonderful Greek term is commonly mistranslated as ‘happiness’, when in fact it more accurately means human flourishing. He labelled ‘Eudaimonia’ as the goal of human thought and action.
His brand of human flourishing involved “living in accordance with reason, fulfilling one’s sense of purpose, doing one’s civic duty, living virtuously, being fully engaged with the world and in particular, experiencing the richness of human love and friendship” (Mackay, p.54)
While there is a lot there, thoughout the ages many great thinkers have offered up a range of ingredients for what possibly makes for a ‘good’, satisfying, flourishing life.
Here their reoccurring themes provide us with 5 ingredients for a life of satisfaction.
They help shape who we are, bring us comfort and companionship and ultimately a reason for existing. According to contemporary philosopher A.C Graying, fostering good relationships through kindness and consideration, are central to what constitutes the meaning of our life.
Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus too tells us that simple pleasures such as those of conversations with friends, along with freedom and thought, are key to a ‘pleasant’ life.
“Of all the means which wisdom acquires to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is friendship.” Epicurus
2. Thought and Reason
The ability to not only think, but more importantly to reason is a virtue most of us are still grappling with. Emotions trump rationality far more often than not (yep my hand is up).
But as Allain de Botton tells us, if we get a wrangle hold of those emotions, using practical intelligence and experience, we become empowered creatures. Now that’s satisfying on two fronts.
3. Moral virtue
To have a satisfying life we need to know we can and do ‘good’ or right things. But we’re not perfect all the time.
Here again the Greeks give us comfort. They saw moral failings simply as ‘bad shots’. The solution to missing the target is simply to try again and do better next time.
Hugh Mackay also offers some direction in our search for a morally ‘good life’ by suggesting we should try to relinquish our many notions of ‘I’ and instead think of ‘we’. A life devoted to others for the common good, leads to satisfaction over and above personal gains.
It goes without saying that our mood or mindset can have immense sway over our attitude and behaviour, the way we see our experiences and those around us. So happiness or a personally satisfying life needs an enduring mood or mindset and a capacity for self-government (Grayling, p.281).
Nietzsche the German philosopher also tells us that the secret of a fulfilled life is to‘ live dangerously’. Maybe we could take that to mean more than the literal and to think courageously and believe in ourselves as well.
5. Action (in training)
The original cynic Antisthenes believed that through rigorous training, happiness could be achieved. Hugh Mackay too seems to subscribe to this view when he suggests what leads to the deepest sense of satisfaction is self-respect, based on self-control and self-discipline (p.26).
Viktor Frankl famously wrote in his seminal work, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ “It is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.”
Ultimately it is our choices and actions on a day-to-day scale that define how meaningful our life might be. Give life a ‘good’ go, learn from the ‘bad shots’ and a satisfying life could well just be the more worthwhile quest.