While defining our ambitions or any larger purpose we give to life and work, we often resort to the term happiness. ‘I want to be happy,’ where happiness is assumed to be a permanent state, is something we come across frequently, yet rarely question. What does happiness mean and how useful is it in spelling out our life goals?
We experience happiness most commonly in the form of sensory pleasure or “feeling good”. When you crave an ice-candy and you go and eat one, you feel happy. When you achieve a projected target at work by sheer effort, you feel happy. But you don’t go on feeling happy the day after having eaten an ice-candy or a month after promotion. Though you may retain a clear memory of that happiness, other feelings, like doubt, confusion or frustration, will evolve and intermingle with the undiluted emotion, which was transitory to begin with, like any other state of mind.
It is naïve and dangerous, therefore, to aspire to achieve a state of being forever happy, because in doing so we belittle our ambitions and drives by setting out for something fleeting, unsustainable and unreal as a final goal.
Fulfillment is a more truthful and achievable state. Fulfillment implies that your life’s ambition does not boil down to chasing one sensory pleasure after another, that regardless of the difficulties which arise in the arena of life and work, you are open to accept and face the challenges of dealing with more complex emotions and states of mind. Alain de Botton suggests rescuing a Greek word, Eudaimonia, to define a kind of fulfillment that embraces even mental anguish and physical suffering:
The word encourages us to trust that many of life’s most worthwhile projects will at points be quite at odds with contentment and yet worth pursuing nevertheless. Properly exploring our professional talents, managing a household, keeping a relationship going, creating a new business venture or engaging in politics… none of these goals are likely to leave us cheerful and grinning on a quotidian basis. They will, in fact, involve us in all manner of challenges that will deeply exhaust and enervate us, provoke and wound us. And yet we will perhaps, at the end of our lives, still feel that the tasks were worth undertaking. Through them, we’ll have accessed something grander and more interesting than happiness: we’ll have made a difference.
Dr Orly Harari volunteered with Peepal Farm from mid-June to mid-July, jump-starting our stray dog sterilization program. She shared her decades-long experience in veterinary practice with our Rescue Team medics, exposing them to several treatment and operational procedures and inspiring them with her relentless energy and dedication to the health and safety of stray animals. All animals in the Rescue Area who came in contact with Dr Orly received her intense, almost tangible, compassion and empathy. And yet, her complete and selfless immersion in the work did not blind her to the dilemmas that came along with it, which she assessed with the same thoroughness and intellectual vigour. It was touching to see her tackle nagging doubts after a hard day’s work.
“I do not know the solutions to so many things. The situation of stray animals should certainly not be encouraged, but what do we do about it? How long do we keep them in shelters till they find a home? There are many questions, about shelter management, shelter medicine, to which I have no answers. Seeing the extent of neglect towards stray animals sometimes brings me down, and there are certain days when I don’t want to be a vet. But I know for certain that these animals need much more love and care than any pet, so I go back to what I know, which is using my craft to help the animals.”
The paths to material success and to fulfillment by doing good work each have their own struggles. But there is a false perception with regard to the latter, that the instant gratification one derives from doing good will make the path itself pleasant. It is this view - and its eventual clash with ground realities - that discourages many enthusiastic souls from sticking with welfare work.
It is certainly not the shortest route you’d take to achieve happiness. In fact, it takes you on a long exploration, often exhausting, but one that opens your mind and heart to something much larger, more lasting and meaningful than personal happiness. It would bring you to a sense of fulfillment or eudaimonia, like in the example of Dr Orly, a deep satisfaction that fully and sincerely accommodates your daily dejection and doubts; because it brings with it an understanding that above all the work must continue, knowing that in end you will make a positive difference.