Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Happiness: commitments, chasing dreams

Recently, I  blogged about the "pursuit" of happiness and the problematic nature of that pursuit. And now, it's graduation season.
If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture.
But, of course, this mantra misleads on nearly every front. -- David Brooks, "It's Not About You
Brooks is considering a different problem, but I think he has some interesting things to say on the same subject that I was writing about some days ago. He continues:

College grads are often sent out into the world amid rapturous talk of limitless possibilities. But this talk is of no help to the central business of adulthood, finding serious things to tie yourself down to. The successful young adult is beginning to make sacred commitments — to a spouse, a community and calling — yet mostly hears about freedom and autonomy.
 I was struck by this formulation of what adulthood is really about and it struck a chord in me. Perhaps because of "expressive individualism" we are resistant to this, to being "tied down," yet historically speaking that has been precisely the way that humans have constructed meaning for their lives--through the webs of their interpersonal relationships, through their relations to a community, as well as through their achievements. 

All of this, however, is not necessarily and either/or prospect. The point of life is not simply to tie ourselves to commitments and, mule-like, slog them through our three score years and ten, whether we like it or not. There is an art to choosing our commitments, not to mention revising our commitments, de-committing, moving on. 

Nonetheless, I do think that if we buy into the ideas of expressive individualism too uncritically, it leads us to unhappiness. We chafe too easily at our commitments, we desire freedom and change for their own sake, rather than because our situation really needs them. We are, to go back to the way I put it in my other post, chasing happiness instead of chasing the other ends that offer significance to our lives. 

There is a balance to be struck here, and it is not the same balance for everyone. Some people really do need to march to the beat of their own drummer, chase their dreams, etc. I suspect that's been the case with most of our great artists, musicians, writers, our innovators, our movers and shakers. And it's not just them, of course: all of us need that at times, and some more than others. The important thing, I think, is that we have to spend some time thinking about these matters to find what works for us, the balance between freedom and commitment, between self and others, and whatever other poles we could define these issues around. If we don't give it serious thought, we are likely to follow too slavishly a path not of our own choosing or to be pulled from the path on which we could find happiness by the voices whispering to us of some other way of living that we dimly believe even if we shouldn't.

1 comment:

  1. I read this in the Times yesterday, too, and had the same reaction. He talks about finding your calling outside of you, but you have to know what's inside, too. When you apply your unique gifts and passions to the world around you, that's an ideal way to contribute to something larger than yourself.