2021 - 2022 Ancient Modern Volume 20

The Pursuit of Happiness: Embracing inner peace and fulfilment within

By Oliver Bould

In the chaotic and cosmopolitan nature of twenty-first century living, it appears we are all relentlessly chasing the ultimate goal – the pursuit of happiness. However, for many of us, this tireless pursuit often results in being whisked away in a whirlwind of ‘to do’ lists, reminders and a persistent struggle to live up to social expectations. We all have goals, and this is great in giving us direction and focusing our energy in a productive and fulfilling way. However, becoming addicted and obsessed with this notion of chasing happiness often means we lose sight of why we began such an exhausting journey in the first place. Why is chasing happiness so difficult? Herein lies the problem. We are too often told the fairy-tale ending that once the struggle is over, we shall obtain eternal gratification and happiness. That ‘in the end’, you’ll finally feel satisfied and then, you’ll have earned the right to be happy.

However, the fundamental problem with this mentality is that it creates a self-perpetuating mindset which presumes that, once you have achieved a goal (which, in your mind constitutes as fulfilment), then you will be happy. This is particularly harmful as it frames fulfilment as a goal that can be checked off, and ultimately leaves us wanting more. For example, too many times people have said that once they have: obtained a desired salary, bought a specific pair of shoes or finally completed all their assignments… then they will be happy. Whilst this may feel like fulfilment at first, this initial rush of immediate gratification always fades. Therefore, shouldn’t we strive to uncover a more permanent source of fulfilment within?

The origins of embracing fulfilment within can be traced back to Lao Tzu, an ancient Chinese philosopher writing during the warring states era in the sixth century BCE. Tzu’s work emphasised the importance of embracing wu wei (effortless action) as a source of genuine satisfaction and inner peace. To rely on material consumption, Tzu contended, was to live a life of artificial happiness and dependence on aesthetic indulgences. His notion of effortless action encourages individuals to avoid trying to create a sense of happiness and instead focus on being content with the present moment. Tzu encouraged a moderate and balanced approach to life, with his teachings on wu wei conveying to readers the importance of realising that one can sufficiently meet their needs, without falling into the intoxicating trap of trying to obtain satisfaction by indulging in lust and desires.

File:Statue of Lao Tzu in Quanzhou.jpg
Statue of Lao Tzu.

The romantic poetry produced by John Keats’ during the nineteenth century, with his fixation on nature and picturesque imagery, captured his ability to uncover inner peace and fulfilment within. Despite Keats’ short and difficult life; losing his father when he was eight, enduring repeated financial difficulties in his pursuit to become a surgeon, suffering from Tuberculosis and eventually passing away at only twenty-five, his legacy is encapsulated in the joy he was able to manifest and radiate through his poetry. During his struggles, Keats’ passion for literature allowed him to become absorbed in the moment. A prime example of this is evident in his admiration of Chapman’s Homer as he found himself completely detatched from his anxieties whilst being completely and consciously present in his study. Keats’ poetry demonstrates the power of single tasking. By simply becoming absorbed in what we are doing right now and showing gratitude for the position we are in, we can learn to overcome the hardships of life through embracing fulfilment, just as Keats did.

File:John Keats by William Hilton.jpg
Portrait of Keats.

During his work in the twenty-first century, philosopher Alan Watts revived this notion of fulfilment being found within, contending that happiness was ultimately a conscious choice. In his collection of essays ‘This is it’ published in 1960, Watts confronted the human race’s fixation on trying to ‘keep happiness’, reflecting on the paradoxical anxiety individuals experience when they realise something has made them happy, however fear that the feeling will not last. Drawing on the teachings of Lao Tzu’s Taoism, as well as Zen Buddhism, Watts sought to enlighten the western world on the ancient teachings of how to embrace happiness in everyday life. His essays promote how by embracing conscious living, we should perceive the present tasks at hand as the reward and source of happiness, as opposed to the ultimate outcome.

‘The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple.’

Alan Watts

Watts emphasises that happiness is a ‘by-product’ of living your life. Anything can bring you happiness, providing that you are consciously in the moment and grateful for the opportunity to exist in the present.

Despite the difference in time between their work, that stemmed across centuries, Tzu, Keats and Watts can all be interpreted to be conveying one united, fundamental message regarding happiness. Happiness cannot be pursued or constructed through material acquisitions or environmental conditions, only consciously embraced within. By simply realising that, even though you might not be exactly where you want to be, you are exactly where you need to be. Recognising this potential for contentment is truly effective in unlocking a deeper and more genuine source of happiness. The life of John Keats provides a clear example of how happiness can still be embraced in times of severe hardships. Through his appreciation of conscious living in the present moment, Keats was able to endure his suffering by embracing the beauty of enlightened living. 

So, how does this link back to understanding the pursuit of happiness? Put simply, if we see happiness as embodied in materialistic gratification, we will be left forever wanting more. Instead of chasing happiness, welcome it in your day-today life. Be grateful when you wake up that you have a roof over your head and a place to call home. Smile at strangers and tell your friends how much their love and support means to you. Realise the blessed position you are in right now. By seeing happiness as something that is forever present and not a goal at the end, we have the power to welcome satisfaction and contentment into our life. If we can do this, we no longer need to pursue happiness. Why chase something that is already there? 

Images:

Statue of Lao Tzu in Quanzhou.jpg, Tom@HK, WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

John Keats by William Hilton.jpg, William Hilton, WikiCommons, Public Domain.