An expert weighs in on our relentless pursuit of happiness.
A version of this post appeared in the New York Times Opinion Pages (“Room For Debate”).
Legend has it that Icarus, on his fake feathered wings, refused to heed his father’s injunction to “fly the middle course,” and consequently saw his wings melt and fell into the sea.
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Avoiding extremes—both in excess and deficiency—is a wisdom preached by Aristotle, Confucius, Aquinas, and many other thinkers and writers. The prescription applies to working too hard versus too little; parenting by decree versus neglect; and pursuing happiness too earnestly versus not at all.
Western culture’s universal messages about the desirability of happiness motivate some to become consumed with the pursuit of personal well-being. Such an obsession can lead people to shirk other critical responsibilities and life goals (like discharging tasks that may be boring or unpleasant), to monitor happiness too much (“Am I happy yet?” “Am I happy yet?”), and to be disheartened when their sense of flourishing, joy, and meaning doesn’t improve rapidly enough. Just like dieters shouldn’t weigh themselves several times a day, happiness seekers shouldn’t evaluate their happiness too frequently.