I remember reading about self-actualization back in the 1960s when I was first aware that I needed to understand more about people and life—meaning me and how I was in the world! Abraham Maslow, among others, wrote about self-actualization and the hierarchy of human needs. He outlined an adult developmental process, what was important at each stage, and what we are striving for in our self-development.
We all struggle to understand what our lives are about and what we should be striving for as we question our own happiness. Frequently, there is a new article in the popular media describing a new study about happiness: who is happy, when are they happiest, to what degree, and why? Much serious research is done on this topic, which gets linked to other concepts like resilience. The Positive Psychology movement is studying people who are doing well, whereas most psychological research is and has been focused on those not doing so well.
Truthfully, I get annoyed that happiness has become such a focal point. Asking people about their happiness and indeed trying to come up with a scale or definition of happiness in itself seems an impossible task. Impossible because our human experience in each moment of our lives is multi-dimensional and not quantifiable. Our human subjective experience is so complex that to reduce it to a question of whether or not we are happy, or to what degree we are happy, just doesn’t seem helpful.
What are we really trying to get at here? Are we trying to find out who the happiest among us is, study what they do, and then try to repeat it ourselves—scale it? Certainly we can learn from others, but we can’t really duplicate another’s experience. One thing that stands out in studies about happiness is that those who seem happy tend to be grateful: The logic being that practicing gratitude each day will help us be happier. I’ve tried this and it’s a good idea. I like doing it, and I think it makes a contribution to my outlook and mood.
But whatever happened to the developmental idea of Maslow and others? What about reckoning with where we are in the life cycle, what our values are, how we are conducting the relationships in our lives, where we find meaning, what our worries and hopes are—our humanity? All of these take place during a specific era of our lives and in a particular cultural/political environment. Is “happiness” defined the same for someone at twenty-five and at fifty?
I guess it’s okay to study happiness, but let’s be careful that in the process we don’t short cut our individual coming to terms with our complex humanity. We all get caught up in wanting a quick fix, spiritual awakening, or some kind of epiphany to launch us to happiness, self-actualization, or some other state of bliss, all states that most of us experience from time to time for a moment. Sustaining them is very hard and something that some of us can do better than others. It takes a lot of hard work, confusion, and struggle to gain an understanding about life and find opportunities for peace and some happiness. The struggle is important, and I don’t believe there’s an end point in sight. As for me, right now I’m pretty happy about some stuff and not so happy about some other stuff.