Approach to happiness

Three men sat together playing cards. During an interval, one of them wondered aloud what each of them would do if news suddenly came that the world was about to end and everyone was going to die. The first stated that he would go out and have all the fun life could offer.

The second confessed that he would give up his job and ask forgiveness for all the transgressions and manipulations he had made on his way to success. The third remarked simply that he would go on playing cards.

Interesting answers, for they typify three common approaches to fulfillment and happiness. Psychologist Martin Seligman, who devoted thirty years of research to the subject, has identified three routes to happiness. He calls them ‘the pleasant life’,  ‘the good life’ and ‘the meaningful life’. That the pleasant life is a much-preferred one is obvious from the fact that the number of people who consider superficial pleasure as the key to happiness is increasing rapidly. Advertisements for material goods bear ample testimony to this. They equate happiness with the possession of these goods and then ask you to ‘to stock up on them’.

There is of course some happiness to be gained from this and it passes for a time as true. However, it is short-lived because it is derived from outer sources. Excess can lead to bankruptcy, misery and debilitating disease. Thus, a life bent on instant pleasure and gratification may offer a degree of happiness but ultimately prove unsatisfactory.

The good life, in this context, is the life marked by success. None of us wants to be shown up as failures, but to perceive success as the sole goal in life is to enter a world of one-upmanship, guile and injustice. An illuminating example is that of Cardinal Wolsey, Chancellor to King Henry the eighth of England. Ordained as a priest, he soon became chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry, however, granted him many high posts. Wolsey used his position to build grand homes, influence people and to lead a lavish life. The time came though when he fell out of favour with the King over his desire to marry Anne Boleyn. Angered by Wolsey’s attitude, he stripped him of all his honours, accused him of treason and confiscated all his properties. Fortunately, before he was condemned to death, Wolsey died. His parting words are worth pondering over: ‘Had I served my God with half the zeal that I served my King, He would not have given me over in my grey hairs’.

‘The meaningful life’ is well represented by the man who declared he would go on playing cards. He, in all probability, had faced life with what Abraham Maslow terms ‘a sense of purpose’, devoting his time to hard work, service and kindness. Such a life brings satisfaction, freedom from stress and most of all peace of mind. He is at peace with his past, enjoys his present and has no fears for the future. He is the one who knows happiness because he knows how to be happy.

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