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Doing good and being happy

Shira Sebban |  18 November 2014

The Pursuit of Happiness in the Declaration of Independence

I recently surprised myself by turning down a rare opportunity to attain what I had long considered my dream job. Having compromised my career for motherhood for many years, I had often compared myself to those I consider high achievers, judging myself as coming up short.

Yet here I was saying no. For weeks I had toyed with the proposal, feeling flattered. At last I felt needed by someone other than family and community. I could contribute to society at large. After all, my children were now older and surely able to cope. Doubts lingered, however. The job would be all consuming. Was this really what I wanted?

Then the realisation hit me. I rather liked my life. True, I had to juggle work and family and never got the balance quite right. But I suddenly saw how much I cherish the time I have to write, and the precious hours I spend with my children, who are growing up so fast, not to mention the importance I place on my voluntary work. I was not prepared to sacrifice any of them for another job, which I now recognised was no longer even my dream vocation.

That realisation has been a major step in my finding happiness. But not necessarily the emotional state of happiness, which Hugh Mackay in his 2013 book The Good Life, dismisses as ‘the most elusive and unpredictable of emotions’, but rather happiness in its original sense, meaning to flourish. 

While Mackay doesn’t like using the word ‘happiness’, lest it be confused with its modern, more selfish meaning of how you may feel at a particular moment, I don’t see any problem in striving to discover ‘the happy life’, becoming fully and meaningfully engaged in whatever is on offer. 

Like many of us, I have often thought that what really matters is what makes us happy. We’re all going to die some day and few will long be remembered. So why not make the most of life? Indeed, didn’t the Americans think so highly of the pursuit of happiness that they enshrined it as an inalienable right in the Declaration of Independence? 

Rather than seeking external factors such as pleasure, wealth, or honour, Mackay, however, argues that we should aim to live ‘the good life’, by which he means being motivated largely by compassion, treating others according to the Golden Rule of how we would like to be treated ourselves. 

‘We ought to pursue goodness for its own sake… No one can promise you that a life lived for others will bring you a deep sense of satisfaction, but it’s certain that nothing else will.’ 

In contrast, people of faith seem able to find an opportunity for growth, spirituality and meaning in every good deed they do and each bit of wisdom they acquire, apparently experiencing true happiness along the way. No wonder the 2011 Gallup survey found that the very religious are amongst the happiest in the US!

In other words, doing good can make you happy and when you’re happy, you do more good. So happiness is actually a moral obligation. 

As a child, my family urged me to find an interest in life to sustain me. Indeed, my grandfather lived as if on an insatiable intellectual quest, telling me, ‘life is full of exciting curiosities, joy and deep feeling for the world’s mysteries’. My family’s view of life involved plenty of struggle towards a noble cause – a view former Commonwealth Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has identified as a form of happiness: ‘the happiness that comes from challenge, … a life that has its setbacks … there is fulfilment, passion … and moments of exhilaration’.

Today my children are taught a broader idea of happiness. Influenced by positive psychology, their teachers get them to identify their ‘signature strengths’, which they are to use to lead engaged and meaningful lives. This reflects the ancient wisdom: ‘Raise a child according to their way’ (Proverbs 22:6). In other words, you need to concentrate on what works for you.

My children are also taught gratitude. As the ancients explained, ‘Who is rich? The one who appreciates what he has’ (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1). 

Developing positive relationships is another area of focus. After all, we are social creatures who need connection through family, friendship and community. Surely such ‘social happiness’ is crucial to a society’s survival. I certainly intend to continue focusing on relationships, finding meaning and purpose through work and community, and hopefully savouring many emotionally happy moments along the way. 

Shira Sebban

Shira Sebban is a Sydney writer and editor who is vice-president of the Board of her children’s school.





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Submitted comments

This may sound corny but when Maria from "The Sound of Music" sang about "My Favourite Things" she hit the right note. It's often the tangible that sustains us. And "My Favourite Things" wouldn't be nearly so resonant if someone sang to Maria "Your Favourite Things". For Christians (and others), we can be thankful our God is not coercive, but is a liberating, loving God who is for humanity.

Pam 19 November 2014

Interesting what the 2011 Gallup survey in America found Shira, because I have found some self-described "religious" people I have met amongst the most miserable and co-dependent I have experienced. But then I wonder how much of genuine religion - like that of Jonathan Sacks - they have really experienced and I think the answer is "very little". Mature, grounded religion is something I think we are a wee bit short of in this country. I think, in Christianity here, there has been too much emphasis on suffering (sometimes without explaining why we suffer and how that is part of normal life which can be transcended ); empty church "fellowship" as epitomised by that institution "cup of tea time" where you are supposed to let every vapid twit and co-dependent person rave unhindered and concentration on "ethical" questions such as conservation without an explanation of why some great saints, like Francis of Assisi, could be seen as pioneer conservationists/ecologists. I think what I call "deep religion" is in fairly short supply. Thank you for your article: it cheered me up and gave me hope.

Edward Fido 19 November 2014

Very interesting article Shira. It is refreshing to read. Palms volunteers do their work selflessly. They don’t expect a reward or praise, they simply wish to work with their hosts to better the lives of those around them. However, as this article points out, “doing good can make you happy and when you’re happy, you do more good”. While our volunteers don’t go into their positions expecting happiness or joy, they do inevitably experience it. And as such, as they delight in their work, their efforts increase, creating this cycle of happiness and progress. As the article puts it, “No one can promise you that a life lived for others will bring you a deep sense of satisfaction, but it’s certain that nothing else will.”

Palms Australia 20 November 2014

Thanks for your article, Shira, written in plain and straightforward English. I can see a way of using your thoughts/words in a tertiary unit I teach on /morality' for some who are considering a future in teaching. I think our in-class exploration will be interesting.

Alan 25 November 2014

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