Rich Karlgaard, Forbes’ publisher, recently wrote, “Being a jerk isn’t worth it. It will damage your heart and soul. It will hurt, not help, your teams. It will lead more often to poverty than to riches. Instead, follow B.C. Forbes’ advice: Produce happiness.” To this we can say, “Bravo, Rich Karlgaard!”
But we face the age-old question that could stump a “Jeopardy” show champ: As everyone wants to be happy, how do we produce true happiness?
In my childhood, meals were foraged and Happiness was a noun in the dictionary. In Peanuts-talk, happiness wasn’t a warm blanket – it was food of any variety as long as it didn’t fight back. In boxing, happiness was not kissing the canvas to be revived by heavy ammonia smelling salts. I once thought I’d be happy if I simply ran 5 miles a day, did more sit-ups, and cut out sweets.
When I was a studious teen, I learned that the great sage Aristotle would’ve disagreed with my conclusions. “Everyone,” he said in ethics lectures in the Lyceum recorded for his son, “wants to be happy. People believe wealth, power, and physical pleasure will make them happy.” I liked that: wealth meant food. “But what people seek in happiness,” he continued, “will not provide it.”
Aristotle had empirically researched people who had The Big Three goodies. He found that these fortunate people weren’t particularly happy. Thus Aristotle, who also invented the modern Western university, long ago disproved what most people still believe today. This, despite ample proof of the woes of many who enjoy excesses in fun and toys. Aristotle’s next logical question was, “If not wealth, power, or pleasure, what then actually brings happiness?”
Aristotle found the answer. After 2300 years, it continues to be counterintuitive and true. People of virtue – those who do the right thing – and who live moderately, are the most loved, admired, respected, and the healthiest and happiest. Wealth, power, and pleasure might be there, but they aren’t required.
I was happy when I worked for a principled, Aristotelian boss or with principled colleagues. I was happiest when courageous leadership created those two conditions in an organization that sought to be principled. Predictably, misery was working for a toxic boss or having predatory co-workers who spewed gossip.
Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, three wise Athenians, held that happiness isn’t material or physical. It can’t be bought, connived, smoked, or put into a chocolate brownie. It is an interior quality that nests in unseen heart and soul and is developed by virtuous conduct. Right living – disciplined self-governance, principled leadership, love, and caring action – can replace our focus on ourselves.
Talk about bunkum, I thought; it was Greek to me.
When I was 20, my mentor, Norm Schwarzkopf, saw that my rejection of Aristotle predicted my resistance to change, and that I’d seek meaning by chasing status, money, and pleasure. He tried to move me from this common and deceptively easy 8-lane toll road to instead climb upward to a high, narrow ridge.
Rich Karlgaard rightly advises that we should make happiness our goal instead of pursuing wealth like a pack of dogs barking after elusive, exhaust-billowing buses.
Norm Schwarzkopf set the example that happiness comes from doing the disciplined duties of virtue – controlling our fierce love of self and freeing ourselves from being slaves to our insatiable wants and grand appetites – and aligning with principles instead of profits. I believe he was a happy man.
What happiness mistakes are you making?