I am on a few philosophy forums, in which we respond to questions and posts with reasoned analysis—or at least that is the hope. One of the questions that sometimes circulate is sometimes phrased, “What is the greatest good?” or “What is the best life?” Most participants respond with a concern for their personal happiness, wanting to live a life of pleasure, or of intellectual or spiritual joy.
And why not?
It is taught to us by our parents, by television and other media that the greatest concern for us as individuals is that we be happy, that we have all of our hopes and deepest desires met. There is nothing wrong with that, in and of itself. All the great religions and philosophies have personal joy and inner peace as a goal.
However, to obtain that happiness, we often forget what we must do to obtain that happiness. I believe that unless we work to bring joy to others, we will never find joy or peace within ourselves.
A couple, after having fallen in love, decide that they will live together, and make a commitment together to be a community. Once two people begin to live together, they find that their happiness is no longer just dependent on their own concerns, but also concerns for the other. If their partner is unhappy, then they are unhappy as well. So their peace depends not so much on striving for happiness themselves, but for trying to bring peace and contentment to another.
This basic principle grows the more we are involved with others. As we have family, we need to work for peace for all. The longer we are in a community, we find that the needs of the community are tied to our own. If we live in a city of a million people, any one unhappy person we meet on the bus or the street could ruin our day. Soon we find that our happiness is not a personal commodity, as if we were an island to ourselves. Rather, contentment for ourselves is dependant at least on every other person we meet. And, to a lesser degree, to every other person in the world.
Thus, I believe that our happiness cannot be created by meeting our own needs and fulfilling our own desires. Rather, happiness is to be found in relationship, in community.
I grew up in a middle class suburban community, insulated, where I never met anyone with real needs. Our way of life and consumption was what I thought of as “normal”. My ideals all changed when I lived in a few urban areas in India and Bangladesh. There, I was followed by beggars and saw my friends living in poverty that I had never experienced. I realized that those in need were just as human and just as good and bad as I was. They were my equals, but many of them are condemned to spend their lives picking through garbage piles for whatever benefit the hundred others who had been through that same pile had left.
After Diane and I had moved to Portland, OR, we began listening to and having community with the homeless. As I listened to the stories of the homeless, and began to share their experiences myself, my own joy and sorrow became tied into their own. But what I realize is that this is true for every single person who relates to my homeless friends. Every person who gives them spare change so they would be left alone, every man who says, “get a job,” every woman who spends a few moments chatting with the homeless, every person with hope who smiles at a homeless person—that small event changed their own level of happiness. It was an experience, built with other experiences with other people, that creates their own sense of well-being or grief. Should we participate in creating other’s grief, then we ourselves live lives of grief. But if we participate in other’s sense of well-being, then we can create well-being for ourselves.
Thus, I believe that “the good life” is found, not in seeking our own happiness, but in seeking other’s well-being. Yes, we can certainly create a sense of joy in ourselves if we get drunk, or if we watch a movie. But if our contentment is based on outside forces changing our own mood, we will soon cause sorrow in others who participate in our life. Self-focus ends up draining those who love us. But if we instead focus on assisting others to obtain happiness, whether in the short term or long term— If we give hand warmers to a stranger who shivers in the cold If we give a hamburger or energy bar for a person holding a sign declaring their hunger If we spend a half hour in conversation with someone who is desperately lonely If we share a movie we really enjoy with someone who has no pleasures in their life If we invite to a family holiday meal one who has no family to share it with— Then the happiness we share will be ours as well.
There is no personal happiness. There is only happiness we share with others, especially with those who have little joy in their lives.