Give Thanks in All Things
Ads tug at our desires. I know my vulnerable spots; perhaps you know yours? Maybe fashionable clothes, a gleaming car, a well-furnished condo, or something else? Our desires may differ, but what we have in common are moments when we imagined, “Ah, if I only had that. That would be perfect happiness.” Anticipating happiness — that’s how ads draw us in. Often, though, once we have what we desire, the pleasure that the ad promised fades. We might say, as the ancient writer of Ecclesiastes discovered, that many pleasures have little substance. Finding happiness by pursuing them is like chasing after wind.
Not that acquiring things means nothing to us. After all, Enlightenment Age philosophers like John Locke saw property as one of our fundamental rights. Our neighbours to the south agreed when they listed the pursuit of happiness, along with life and liberty, as one of the unalienable rights of their citizens. With “pursuit of happiness,” Thomas Jefferson, the author of the American Declaration of Independence, pointed toward a purpose for property. Ownership develops a certain kind of person, he believed, a person who is industrious, stewardly, and independent. Many Albertans understand this. For years, we posed “an entrepreneurial spirit” as one of three foundational goals for school graduates in our province. Happiness depends on character, according to this view, and people who have qualities that lead to self-sufficiency are the ones most likely to be content with their lives.
People have long thought that happiness is more dependent on our characters than our circumstances. For example, The Emperor’s Club, a 2002 film directed by Michael Hoffman, presents Mr. Hundert, a teacher, forming the characters of prep-school boys around high ideals that could help them make lasting contributions to their world. Early in the film, Mr. Hundert admonishes a new student who strayed onto the grass to stick to the sidewalks. Walk where the great men of the past have walked, he advises. The incident signals how the boys will be guided as they tangle with great intellectual works of the past, becoming people with nobler characters in the process. The film is a popularized presentation of a long educational tradition that some of us are old enough to have experienced. The broad aim of the tradition is human excellence. It aims for human excellence by guiding students to be thoughtful, to resist unworthy motivations, and to fashion a life and a self according to high virtues that reflect true humanity. The happiness it promises rests on character rather than the pleasures promised by advertisers. The character it hopes to form is of a different kind than the self-sufficiency promoted by instilling an entrepreneurial spirit in Albertans.
While fleeting pleasures are ephemeral, happiness as a product of character offers more substance. However, how does the aim of human excellence relate to suffering in our world? These days, our eyes are drawn toward the agony in Ukraine. Beyond Ukraine, we think of a long list of places where armed conflict is destroying lives. Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Libya, Mali, Myanmar, Syria, and Yemen are prominent examples, but the list could be longer. Then we could and should make lists related to poverty, to discrimination, to environmental degradation, and many other issues. Is there any way to be present in a world of suffering, and to lament its effects, while making happiness our aim?
Perhaps we are mistaken in aiming for happiness, despite the nudging of advertisers or the venerable traditions that link happiness to character development. What could replace it even while we keep our eyes focused on the suffering around us? One answer, also with a time-honoured pedigree, is gratitude. Gratitude takes our attention away from the things we desire or have achieved and focuses it on what we have been given. Gratitude may not aim at happiness, but it can offer contentment.
Lloyd Den Boer is a retired educator, living in Edmonton with his wife. They have many things to be grateful for. Like so many others, they are practising how to be content with them.