Growing up in a Catholic country like Poland can twist one’s perception of happiness. I mean, the religion I was taught as a child glorified suffering as a virtue. This, combined with Polish martyrology and a few personal factors, made me see happiness as indulgence.
Interestingly, the self-improvement narrative I ran into later kept reinforcing that. My perception of personal growth was, from the very beginning, that I should “grow from my discomfort.” In this light, it seemed like it was either happiness or growth that I was pursuing.
It wasn’t until I started exploring the ideas of Buddhist psychology that I saw happiness and growth as two intertwined concepts. Moreover, my own happiness started seeming more like a moral choice, rather than indulgence.
It is clear to me now that I am much more useful to the world when I am at peace with myself. This is how I understand morality: bringing as much value to the world as I can.
In Buddhism, this is termed as “wholesome” actions — i.e. the ones that contribute to reducing the amount of suffering in the world. And because it is the total amount of suffering that is in question, reducing your own share of it also helps.
In the words of a Buddhist abbot, Thanissaro Bhikkhu:
“The classic image illustrating this point is of two acrobats, the first standing on the end of a vertical bamboo pole, the second standing on the shoulders of the first. To perform their tricks and come down safely, each has to look after his or her own sense of balance. In other words, life is a balancing act. By maintaining your balance, you make it easier for others to maintain theirs. This is why, in the Buddhist equation, the wise pursuit of happiness is not a selfish thing.”
If there is a person standing on your shoulders and relying on your balance, you do them a disservice if you neglect this balance.
This shows clearly how, in order to support others in the most genuine way, pursuing your own sense of well-being as a priority is the only reasonable option.
Then there is also the superficial dissonance between one’s happiness and their growth. At least, this is how I perceived it for a long time. With all the slogans such as “life begins at the edge of your comfort zone” and “feel the fear and do it anyway,” I came to believe that I have to choose.
I can either “have it easy” and be happy — or I can grow through constantly pushing myself to the edge.
What a misguided notion. While a certain dose of discomfort may help you see outside of the box, the peace of mind and comfort are absolutely essential to foster your growth as a person.
Over a century ago, Robert Yerkes has already concluded that to maximize performance, people only need a slightly higher level of stress that their default. He referred to it as “optimal anxiety.” Any anxiety that leaps beyond that level, decreases performance — rather than improves it.
The same is true for our creativity. If we want it to flourish, we first need our basic needs for comfort and safety to be met. In the words of Teresa Amabile published in the Harvard Business Review:
“To enhance creativity, there should always be a safety net below the people who make suggestions.”
We also know that appreciation and gratitude maximize our output more than the most constructive critique. And these are, yet again, the qualities that contribute to our overall sense of happiness.
Why would we then keep putting growth in opposition to happiness? In a corporate setting, why would we still glorify the archetype of a good employee as an overworked one? Why would we keep pushing ourselves to experience discomfort, if we can also grow and thrive inside our comfort zones?
Seeing all of this, I also recognize that maintaining long-lasting happiness takes work. If I am to enjoy life, I need to find the time and resources to take care of myself.
Tim Ferris rightly said that “being busy is a form of laziness — lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.” Analogically — for those of us who are privileged enough to even be able to think of personal growth — I see neglecting our own happiness as a form of laziness. It is often easier to remain oblivious to your needs and go with the flow of the external impact. But this leads you nowhere.
Having had received the education and opportunities that I did, I see it as kind of a moral obligation to give back to the world. At the same time, the more conscious I grow, the more I see that being of service is the most rewarding thing I can possibly pursue.
But I cannot serve others well without considering my own growth and happiness. So I choose to see the “wise pursuit of happiness” simply as the right way to proceed. Being stuck in unhappiness doesn’t make sense — neither to me, nor to the world around.