We set a goal and accomplish it. We get the grade we wanted on that paper or the date with that person we’ve been admiring. We seize the potential that we aspired to and force it into reality. For a moment, we feel wonderful. Then we take a breath. Suddenly, there is another thought: I don’t actually feel any better, and whatever it is that I attained hasn’t improved things in a way I can feel for more than a few moments.
It is a dilemma that almost everyone, especially those of us at this school, has been confronted with before. It flies in the face of an obvious maxim that what makes us happy is the act of wanting something and then getting it. It implies that the things we want provide only the most ephemeral happiness and makes the pursuit of joy seem like a hopeless measure.
If nothing is sustainable, then it doesn’t seem to matter if the things we want are simple ones or if they border on fulfilling that near-impossible neurosis that all of us here seem beset by: to be the best. Both will either come to pass or not, and they will, in the end, leave nothing.
But life cannot be so without hope. Our personal pursuits of happiness cannot be empty set-ups designed to trick us.
However, we have already dismissed the simple solution of goal-setting and achieving. While some may wail that they have become perfectly happy in achieving the goals they set for themselves, it is likely they haven’t yet had the time to let the particular instance they’re thinking of pass. I would challenge them to recall this: When they got the letter telling them that they had been accepted into the University of Chicago, they were probably euphoric. And while nobody (at least not this columnist) is saying this is a terrible place, I suspect that nobody wakes up every morning as happy to be here as they were when they first got the news.
To find a real answer to the question of happiness, we must get beyond the idea that some event or some achievement is the exception to the rule. Several lifetimes could be spent looking for that thing, and it might still never be found.
Instead, consider this hypothesis: Happiness can be found, not in that disappointing reflection that comes after we get what we seek, but in the very moment in which we realize it. The experience of happiness is in its truest form only on the razor’s edge of experience where the aspiration and the realization are united, and, in that moment, joy is actualized.
It is in this way, and in this way only, that happiness can be sustained—not in the perpetual reflection of singular accomplishments, but in the experience of those things themselves, over and over, as they happen.
This is admittedly a difficult thing to pursue. To become aware of the sought-after moment when joy is found is to ruin it—to put it suddenly in retrospect and draw from it the inevitable realization that it has provided nothing lasting. But if one can learn, somehow, to move through life not in the pursuit of some illusory memory box of happy moments but for the actual moments themselves, then one can hope to find a joy that, if by definition is not for remembering, is at least worth living for.
Put simply, happiness is like The Game: So long as you’re in it, you’re winning, but when you think of it, you lose.
Emmett Rensin is a first-year in the College.