Sometimes it may be hard to find the motivation to live happily in this world. I have faced that challenge before and I understand those who face it too. We look around and see so much suffering and injustice: the poor becoming poorer, nature being destroyed, terror spreading across borders, mass extinction, innocents being slaughtered… There are so many different kinds of evil in the world that I would probably be sitting in this chair writing down a list until my fingers were covered in dust. You turn on the TV, access social media or talk to a neighbor and a wave of bad news hits you in the face: another terrorist attack; the State taking new measures to steal money from the people; a dozen acres of the Amazonian rainforest cut down; another species driven to extinction; a presidential candidate championing hate speech; and so on and so on. But not only does it happen on a macro level, it seems like we also meet bad people or experience bad things on a personal level, in our own private lives. If there is so much darkness all around us, it’s perfectly understandable to wake up one morning and think: wait, why should I feel like getting up? I live in such a dreadful world with so many bad things… Why should I be happy?
The answer is hard to find. Or perhaps it’s extremely easy and we humans are just doing it again: making a riddle out of what’s pure logic. And we can, in fact, find some logic in this reasoning: all living beings in this world want mainly two things in life, which can be summed up as one – to experience pleasure and not to experience pain. Being happy implies not being in pain, of course. Therefore, if we were all happy, none of us would be in pain – or, if none of us were in pain, we would all be happy. Following this, the greater the number of happy beings in the world, the smaller the number of those facing suffering. So, to be happy could be viewed almost as a moral duty with the purpose of spreading as much happiness in the world as possible, if only two conditions apply: that to be happy does not involve making others suffer, and that it actually contributes to others being happy (or just, let’s say, being well). If your happiness involves the well-being of others, or simply does not include their pain and suffering, then you are on the right path!
This is, in essence, the idea behind Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism: the belief that the best moral action is that which maximizes utility, considering utility as being mostly related to the well-being (happiness or pleasure, thus the absence of pain and suffering) of sentient beings. Bentham, the founder of this theory, actually defined utility as the “aggregate pleasure after deducting suffering of all involved in any action”. It is truly an interesting ethical theory which we all should study in further detail. But my point here is that we should use this reasoning to find motivation to live happily in such a dark, frustrating world. For if we see it with certain eyes, and if we interact with it in a certain way, we can see that there is beauty in it, happiness and a lot of light as well.
Darkness is powerful. It can spread its shadows far away and even when there is light, there is shadow. But light too has its power – like Buddha said, “thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the single candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared”. If you imagine happiness as being Light, Good, Love, the purest Force there is, then you will know that you can spread it all around you… “if only you remember to turn on the light” (and yes, this is a direct Dumbledore quote. Harry Potter had a lot to teach us). Please note that happiness, here, is being treated as a synonym of well-being. I don’t mean that we should all suddenly dedicate ourselves to an obsessive, selfish pursuit of happiness. This is only a valuable force if we search it together – and if we share it. And it may be hard to be happy in a grim world, but like so many things in life, here is the secret (which is not really a secret after all): you must start by the small stuff. The simple things. The details. Here are a few examples:
Enjoy the soft sunlight in the morning. Taste that warm coffee that you drink, that croissant or that pastry you eat at breakfast with pleasure. Feel beautiful in the clothes you wear when you go to work. Dedicate yourself to your work, or strive to find one that makes you feel fulfilled. Go out for a walk in the park and feel the scent of the grass, admire the blue sky, the birds and the animals around you. Talk to other people on the street – and, more importantly: smile. There is incredible power in a simple smile, in a simple gesture like being kind to somebody else. Read, write, sing, dance, do something that enriches you in your mind, body and heart. You don’t need to live a perfect life. None of us have perfect lives because perfection is impossible or almost impossible to find. But that is also what leads us to frustration and anguish: to look for the impossible, to constantly crave for more, more and more. If only we could learn to appreciate what we have, to admire the small things and to give them their true value, we would be much happier than we often are. And then, a mysterious phenomenon will take place.
You see… happiness is contagious. Smiles are contagious. Kindness is contagious. When you are happy, you see the world through brighter eyes. But somehow, you also make it brighter. This has the curious effect of making it easier for others to see it through brighter lights as well. As with everything, change must start within. You cannot live in a happy world if even you are unhappy. So if you work to be well, you will begin to positively affect the lives of those around you. Imagine what would happen if everybody did this: we would all be affecting each others’ lives in a positive way and happiness would vastly increase. Of course, there will always be dark forces in this world which conspire to make others (especially the innocent) suffer. But if we each make a personal effort to spread light, there will always be some light in the world. And Martin Luther King Jr. already spoke the truth, just like Gandhi or Buddha: darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind. We live in a world where powerful forces confront each other: but as long as there is one single candle being lit, there will be light somewhere in the dark. And happiness only increases by being shared.