Breaking the late-evening quietness, the question rose from me. “What do you want out of life, ultimately?” It almost felt careless to ask, for I wasn’t truly curious. I already knew what answer to expect. It was far beyond a cliché by this point.
In response, she opened her mouth, paused, then said, “To be happy, of course.” It was the repeated answer I had heard from others, over and over, freshly spoken. And yet, the unifying source of desire still intrigued a juvenile part of my mind.
“So, it’s a destination? As in, a goal? How will you know when you’ve accomplished it?” My mind drifted to the words Nirvana, as happiness being a state of mind achieved, and Heaven, as it a place to be achieved.
She looked curiously at me as I continued this inquisition, then took a moment to reflect. “It’s more so just a feeling… I think.”
“Then wouldn’t it come and go? Wouldn’t it be inconsistent and entirely circumstantial?” Contradictions began arising.
With a sigh of slight annoyance, she turned away. “I’m really not sure. I mean, yeah I guess.” I could tell this seemed as unimportant to her as it sounded.
“So, just to feel happy as much as possible.” I concluded, to myself.
She nodded, and the sleepy silence continued.
Releases of endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin. Happiness, being a defined emotion, then simply becomes a chemical reaction we’re seeking for. The entwinement of the “pleasure principle” and our reward system. Is it only this, our biological nature, which seeks, strives, and steers us with motivation for satisfaction? Is the hedonistic approach ultimately correct? Are things actually “good” based on if they release these chemicals or not? And should we seek out those things to be the path of fulfillment we take?
At first glance, it may appear to be this way. But, as we also know, human life, drive, and desire is much more complex than this. We constantly defy normal behavior in the animal kingdom and display evolved characteristics, such as self-control: “The sages instructed us not to follow our base instincts for sensual pleasures and material possessions, but rather our higher potential for compassion and moderation. This philosophy is found in both East and West, and in both secular and religious traditions (pg. 83, http://unsdsn.org/).” Compassion, which by definition is the desire to help others, was said to be important in our pursuit of happiness, as well as moderation – which is the opposite of excess – because they help us live “the right kind of life.” I do believe we need to live by these two key words in order to find such virtue.