With Eastern philosophy currently on trend in the Western personal-development genre, gurus have been popping up everywhere, preaching the idea that happiness comes from within. This perceptual change is usually achieved through detachment from ego and the material world of possessions through meditation or present-centered breathing practices. This ultimately leads to a state of non-striving whereby the practitioner finds happiness by no longer seeking happiness.
Personally, I’ve found many benefits in inner-based practices, particularly those of Eckhart Tolle. Although working on our inner-life can free us from the forms of striving that prevent happiness, we are still stuck with a problem: all forms of striving can’t disappear. If this were the case, our societies would immediately collapse and idleness would ensue. And who really wants to give up all forms of striving? I personally love striving to write better, think of better ideas, lift more at the gym, and become a better person overall.
So how does one achieve both inner happiness and an outer-life of striving? I believe this is where we can learn from the Western traditions. Aristotle stated, “happiness depends upon ourselves,” but did not believe it could be found in isolation. He believed that we are political animals and need to strive to develop our own personal virtues through exercising our reason, particularly in our relations with others and our work. This can only be achieved in outward practice and necessarily includes striving. Therefore, I argue that it’s not about whether or not we strive for something, but it’s what we strive for that matters.
Striving to improve in one’s work and hobbies can be a source of happiness, so long as happiness is part of the journey, not projected as a destination. The Psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes this as a ‘flow state’ produced by “vital engagement” with one’s work. Beyond immersion, one’s relation to work can produce happiness if the work takes on the characteristics of a vocation or a calling. From janitors to presidents, one’s work can take on these characteristics when seen as a form of service to a cause greater than one’s self, in addition to maintaining belief in the worthiness of this cause.
This leads us back to the opening question: does happiness come from within? Moral Psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, gives us a brilliant alternative to the common idea that it solely comes from within, stating that happiness comes from between. By this he means happiness can come from our relationship with our work or our relationship with our religious practice. He states, “commit yourself to people and projects, and enter a state of ‘vital engagement’ with them.” Although happiness “depends upon ourselves,” as stated by Aristotle, it also draws on a source of meaning external to the individual. I believe Karl Marx was right about a key aspect of modern employment: its tendency to alienate workers.
Happiness can be achieved from within, making one aware of ineffective forms of striving, but it can also be achieved in the relationship between an individual and their vocation, whatever form that may take. Happiness is not merely the absence of striving; rather, it is the proper application of striving.
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