Is Happiness the Ultimate Aspiration?
Updated: Feb 16
In one of my all time favorite movies, Crazy Rich Asians, the matriarch of the fabulously wealthy Young family, Eleanor Young, said: “You’re a foreigner. American- and all Americans think about is their own happiness.”
The ultimate American value - happiness. This moment in the film depicts the way in which many foreigners view Americans. While on the one hand Americans are obsessed with success in the forms of fame and fortune and often fail to have balance in their lives, they are also convinced that happiness is the essential ingredient to success. If you are not happy, you must be doing something wrong.
Do what makes you happy! If you are not happy in your marriage, leave it. If you are not happy with your job, quit. You think having children will take away your ability to make yourself happy? Don’t have them. Eating nutritious foods doesn’t make you happy? Don’t eat them. The sign of a great friend is one who makes you happy. The most important attribute to seek in a spouse is his or her ability to make you happy. If it does not make you happy, DO NOT do it.
Now, I understand that there are unique circumstances in life. Some people find themselves in marriages where there is abuse or infidelity, which brings valid reason for the dissolution of a marriage. And no, you should not be absolutely miserable in your job. There is certainly nothing wrong with shifting to a career where you feel more purposeful. And no, not everyone is called to have children. In short, I am not saying that we should live in states of misery and negativity.
However, I am saying that to live our lives guided by a mere fleeting feeling is shallow and reckless. What people in our modern culture fail to grasp is: their senses of duty. Husbands have a duty to their wives. Wives have a duty to their husbands. Parents have a duty to their children. Children have a duty to their parents. Friends have a duty to each other. Employers have a duty to their employees. Employees have a duty to their employer. We have a duty to our communities. We have a duty to God.
So what does duty have to do with happiness? When the two conflict, duty should win. Your spouse might be less engaging and interesting recently, but it is your responsibility to love and serve them anyway. You might be frustrated with some of your tasks at work, but it is your responsibility to complete those tasks for your employer. You might be overwhelmed by managing so many employees, but it is your responsibility to lead them. Your best friend might be frustrating you, but it is your responsibility to show them compassion anyways. Your children might be behaving horribly, but it is your responsibility to love and guide them anyway.
The thing about meeting our duties is, it can lead to feelings of happiness. But what meeting our duties can bring most of all is: joy. While happiness is a feeling that fluctuates, joy is rather a state of being. Joy is fueled by purpose and fulfillment, both of which coincide with duty.
So begs the question: is happiness the ultimate aspiration? I say no- joy is the ultimate aspiration. And what is an avenue to joy? Fulfilling our God-given duties.