Happiness: The Byproduct of a Life Well-lived
The other day, as I was cycling home from work, I listened to a new podcast called Philosophy Now. When I start a new podcast, I love to start at the very beginning, so the first available episode, How to Think Like an Agnostic Bat, was running through my head as I sped along the trail. The episode featured authors Peter Cave and Mark Vernon, and although the conversation had too quick a pace for my liking, one subject really grabbed my attention: happiness and how we achieve it, according to John Stuart Mill.
“Those only are happy…who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.”John Stuart Mill, Autobiography
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was an English philosopher who thought highly of utilitarianism and the value of pleasure and happiness. The quote above from his autobiography captures something about happiness that resonates with me: happiness is a byproduct of living, not the ultimate goal.
When I was beginning to think about graduating university, I remember feeling as though the decisions I made regarding my future would ultimately alter my path. As I debated a few career options, it felt as though only one choice would lead me to happiness, and the others would all lead me to failure.
I remember talking with my boyfriend one evening about how I was feeling regarding my several career options, and I realized as we talked that choosing a certain career wouldn’t ultimately make me happy or unhappy. There are many different paths I could take and still live a life full of happiness, because happiness is not a certain end or activity, it can be found while doing many different things.
“Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.”John Stuart Mill, Autobiography
Don’t get me wrong, I love philosophy and discussing the tough questions in life, but Mill’s point on how questioning whether you are happy immediately makes you less happy, definitely holds weight.
There is a saying that happiness exists only in the present and not in the past or future. The closer we are to being fully present, the happier we are. The more we reflect on the past and worry about the future, the less happy we become.
So instead of focusing on the question: “What will make me happy?” Instead we can ask ourselves what goals we want to achieve, and as we work towards those goals and appreciate our present moment within our process, we will find true happiness.
“The only chance [of living a happy life] is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, or putting it to flight by fatal questioning.”John Stuart Mill, Autobiography
As we inhale and exhale and live simply in that moment of breath, we have no choice but to be content. Happiness is what happens when we are busy living our lives and focusing on the present. I tried this as an experiment at work and as I was working through my emails I took a moment to assess how I was feeling, about my life in that moment, and honestly I was happy. Not because emailing makes me happy, but because I was doing a job I enjoy and I was noticing the present moment without stress or worry about the past or future.
Do you ever have a really normal day, when nothing particularly good happens, but you are just in a really good mood? Have you ever stopped what you are doing and realized how grateful you are for your life? If not, try to notice happiness in your own life. And begin to realize that happiness is not your goal, living your life is.