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I have shared with you in the past the challenge I often experience when I consider my current work schedule. I have a few friends in Florida regularly ask me why I continue my current practice of returning to Cincinnati to work, when I could stay in Florida, find employment there for equal take home pay, and supposedly be happier. I should choose, they tell me, to pursue happiness in a place that offers many of the things I enjoy in life.
These friends of mine, however, cannot understand the response I give them – that I don’t currently want to change the structure of my life. While stress from work, the challenges of a back and forth schedule and the costs associated with working here are not easy, I find significant fulfillment and satisfaction in what I do as a minister. Being happy, for me, goes beyond my physical well-being. I want to feel that my life serves a greater purpose than just my own happiness.
I relate this anecdote not to solicit your sympathy, but in order to offer an illustration that sets up my message on the pursuit of happiness. I’ve focused this month in my three messages on the relationship between suffering and happiness – and most importantly, in how they help define our life purpose and legacy. What is it that truly makes us happy? How do our reasoning minds, or our emotions, figure in our happiness? Reason tells me I would be happier living and working in a place that gives me enjoyment. But my feelings of compassion for others, gratitude for all I’ve been given and a personal desire for meaning lead – these lead me to a different conclusion. They call me to serve others at least as much as I do myself.
Rational people, however, do not allow emotion and heart impulses to govern their actions. Reason seems to tell us that personal happiness ought to be our primary purpose in life. If stress, extra expenses and cold weather cause me distress, I should reasonably eliminate them and choose another way to live. But such a choice would ignore my feelings on the matter. I want to help change the world for the better. I want to connect with and relate to other people. These are things that make me feel useful, purposeful and, as a result, happy.
Ayn Rand, and her book Atlas Shrugged, however, support my head analysis of how I should live – that I should pursue my happiness above all else. The book has achieved new fame in recent years – mostly among thoughtful and philosophical conservatives. Indeed, Rand’s book and her philosophy are more popular now than they were in 1957 when the book was first published. While the book is fictional, its intent is to present a very clear message.
It details a future where America is the only non-dictatorial nation. Governments around the world have all asserted that the collective good is greater than individual good – that people morally owe one another their service, instead of immorally serving themselves. All nations in Rand’s fictitious world, with the exception of America, have adopted Marxist governments and economies.
Atlas Shrugged depicts an America that is nevertheless sliding toward Communism. One day, in Rand’s story, America finds itself in crisis – all of the innovators, entrepreneurs, scientists, doctors and business owners have vanished. Those who make America run and prosper are gone. And America becomes a bleak, dark and joyless place – much like the rest of the world.
Woven within her story about two corporate leaders who become lovers and then discover the reason for the disappearance of all the nation’s innovators, is Rand’s philosophy on the purpose of life. She even has one of the characters deliver a 70 page long discourse on her philosophy of “Objectivism”. According to this theory, we should use objective reason as the means to decide how to act in life. Our thinking minds, Rand said, tell us that personal happiness must be our goal. To obtain happiness, each person is not only responsible for their own happiness but the pursuit of happiness should be our primary goal. In other words, selfishness is good and self-sacrifice is bad or, as Rand emphasized, it is a philosophy of personal loss and eventual decline.
Ayn Rand would tell me that I am a fool to labor here as a minister, to inconvenience myself in that regard, to give up what I could otherwise enjoy. Logically, I should pursue happiness by remaining in Florida. I would be happier and thus do more for the world if I did not give up personal pleasure.
My discussion of Ayn Rand might seem as if I want to engage in a political discussion. I do not. I want to instead encourage spiritual reflection on what it means to pursue happiness and the kinds of things that actually provide it. Many current conservatives see Ayn Rand as a wise prophet. She was someone willing to condemn governments and prevailing “do good” philosophies as illogical. Human evolution and experience show us that we are organisms intrinsically designed to seek our individual well-being and survival – to eat, reproduce and avoid pain. As rational creatures, we instinctively follow a Darwinian, or survival of the fittest, approach to life – the well-being of individuals and of our communities depends on the personal effort not just to survive but to thrive. Only those who are able to thrive, and pass down their genes, will find happiness and, in the long run, evolve, populate the earth, and make for a better world.
In Rand’s philosophy of “Objectivism”, people are altruistic solely because of their emotions – which she asserted are not reason based. Emotions such as love, empathy, or compassion lead us to make illogical decisions about how to act. She saw altruism as a sacrifice of the self. It is a morality of death, she said, since it leads to our decline by giving away pieces of ourselves. People and societies get ahead only by meeting their needs. As she said, “If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.”
Furthermore, emotions such as compassion and altruism lead us to feel guilty when we do act in self-interest. Such guilt is destructive. If we look at life without subjective emotion, she believed, we will see that self-interest is objectively for our own good and is the means by which society as a whole succeeds. This is the push / pull, in other words, between our hearts and our minds – but it is only our minds that tell us the truth. We should ignore our “do good” emotions.
In her view, most human behavior is already self-oriented and even though we do not admit it. Parents do not support their children and pay for their educations based on altruism or love. The root motivation for their actions is based on self-interest, which is to reproduce by making copies of themselves. Mother Teresa, for instance, did not serve others for sacrificial reasons. She was motivated by self-interest to make herself look good in a world that values altruism. A doctor does not treat patients solely to do good. He or she does so to make money and even get rich. I do not minister primarily to help people. I do so for my paycheck. Money, as she said, is society’s barometer of virtue. An industrialist serves far more people than did Mother Teresa by not pretending to be altruistic. He or she seeks money by exchanging valuable labor or creativity for even greater value. Exchanging value for nothing, is not a primary motivator for anyone. We should not pretend otherwise.
The problem with Rand’s philosophy lies in her analysis of what makes people truly happy. For Rand, we are happy when we receive external reward. And seeking such external reward is what motivates behavior. All of our actions are done in order to receive a reward in recognition, money or material benefit. What we find, however, is that obtaining external rewards is not the means to long term happiness. It is a highly primitive way to be happy – one found in the most basic of organisms.
Neurological research shows that externally derived pleasures like food or sex stimulate a release of the hormone dopamine that briefly lights up pleasure centers in our brains. What neurologists, philosophers and even casual observers of human behavior have discovered is that too much external reward, and resulting high levels of dopamine, these ironically lead to less happiness and even suffering. If we allow external reward to motivate us, if we believe only that will make us happy, we will find ourselves on an endless treadmill seeking greater and greater reward. But as with an addict, such pleasure soon loses its power – we need more and more of it achieve the same high. If we ever stop desiring external stimuli, we will not be happy.
Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher, wrote that happiness is derived from simplicity and limiting selfish desires. We should pursue happiness inwardly by seeking a peace of mind similar to what the Buddha encouraged. Desire is the root cause of suffering and only by reducing selfish, external motivations can we truly be happy. We must avoid what Epicurus described as the “pain – pleasure – pain” cycle. We desire external pleasure when we are in pain. But we find that external rewards only lead to more pain – we become anxious about protecting our reward, we worry about getting more of it, the urge to seek more and more external pleasure gets stronger, and that leads to even greater disappointment because we eventually can’t satisfy such desires. This is the paradox of the pursuit of happiness. If we pursue it, we won’t get it.
Once again, modern research and neurology support this idea. Another hormone released by our bodies is oxytocin. But it is released not because of external stimuli that we crave – like food and sex, but by inner feelings of inspiration, love, and compassion. For instance, when we cry at the hurt we seen someone experience, our bodies are flooded with oxytocin. Instead of igniting pleasures centers in our brains like dopamine, oxytocin regulates the vagus nerve which controls our heartbeat and breathing. Oxytocin slows down our heart rates and calms our breathing. Feelings of peace, contentment and happiness then take over.
Victor Frankl, the holocaust survivor and author of the book Man’s Search for Meaning, supported this idea from his experiences in the Nazi death camps. “Happiness,” he wrote, “cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself.” In the depths of hell on earth, that of four different Nazi concentration camps, Frankl discovered that the persons most likely to survive were those who found peace of mind not from selfishly obtaining pleasures like more food, but rather from giving to others. Frankl wrote that meaning and joy is found in sacrifice for another. As he wrote, “The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve another person – the more human he is.”
Frankl focused during particularly hard times in Auschwitz on his wife and the love he had for her – even though he had no idea if she was alive or dead. At one especially difficult time he wrote, “I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious ‘Yes!’ in answer to my question of ultimate purpose. Once again I communed with my beloved wife. More and more I felt that she was present; that she was with me; I had the feeling that I was able to touch her, able to stretch out my hand and grasp hers. The feeling was very strong: she was there. Set me like a seal upon thy heart, love is as strong as death.”
In poignant fashion, Victor Frankl understood what brings true happiness far better than Ayn Rand. It is only in forgetting the self, in letting go of the pursuit of happiness, in focusing on loving and serving others, that one ironically finds the self and all of its potential to be happy.
My recent time caring for my mom deeply affected me. I’m still struggling to understand her suffering and my feelings about it. I found myself last Sunday expounding on the life affirming purpose we can find in suffering, and yet I was reduced to tears when I specifically remembered my mom. Confronted face to face with it, suffering is real and, yes Ginny, it does suck. But I did not care for mom out of duty or sacrifice. I did so in love for her and my dad.
Like any of you, I yearn to find myself, my life and my purpose in compassion and charity. Ministry is not just a profession for me. Yes, it earns me a paycheck but that only meets my basic needs. Instead, ministry deeply fulfills me because I know, in very small ways, I make a difference. Ministry is how I find happiness precisely because, in my work, I’m not pursuing it. And the same is true for any of you as educators, social workers, homemakers, managers, whatever is your life calling. We seek not extrinsic pleasure from what we do in life. We seek intrinsic meaning at making a small piece of the world better. We pursue not happiness but, instead, awe and wonder with nature, gratitude for all we have been given, humility in thought and demeanor. We want to be life affirming and never destructive or hateful. We aspire to feelings of unity with all humanity – to express love openly, to sing with joy at simple pleasures, to embrace life as an adventure to love and give. Without such emotions, with only our cold, objective and unfeeling minds to guide us, life would be a brutish, dog eat dog existence. In such an existence, some will find a multitude of sensory delights from the pursuit of external happiness – lavish food, exotic travel, material luxuries. These can be modestly satisfying in limited doses. But as for me, as for us, we are driven by a nobler inner call to kindness, generosity and love. The key to finding happiness is to die to self in order to love and serve others. And it is in the death of self interest, that we’ll find our true reward.