Recently, my cousin, a physiotherapist, treated a spry woman a century old. He took the opportunity to ask her what the greatest advance was that she had witnessed over her lifetime. She paused before confidently declaring, “Bars of soap!” Until then, she had struggled with lye to make soap herself. Soap is such a simple thing, but it made her life infinitely easier.
Throughout history women have lived physically difficult lives which carried an emotional toll. It’s not hard to see where that stereotype of the nineteenth century housewife addicted to laudanum came from. And yet I’m not sure our microwaves and our washing machines and our fast food and even our careers have made modern women much happier.
Are we happy? We’re told we should be. After all, from the time we are small, we are told that the sky is the limit! Finally women have been freed from our shackles and we can be fulfilled! In fact, our whole lives should be fulfilling! We are the generation that will reap the benefits of what feminists have fought for.
And then we grow up, have babies who don’t sleep, husbands or boyfriends who seem only to want one thing, and careers which are impossible to juggle with sick babies, day care schedules, and gymnastics lessons. Where is all this fulfillment and happiness we were promised?
Part of the problem, I think, is that we’re aiming for the wrong thing. I can’t think of a worse route to happiness than to always be wondering if you’ve achieved it. After all, if you’re constantly asking yourself, “am I happy?”, you will always find reasons why you’re not. You’re not sleeping well. No one thanks you enough for all you do. You don’t have nice clothes. Your husband can’t figure out what a mop is for. And the list goes on. If you’re constantly saying to yourself, “I’ll be happy when…”, and you can fill in the blank, then chances are you never will be happy. If your wish were to come true, something else would pop up that you want just as much. That’s the nature of the quest for happiness. It’s rooted in circumstances, and it makes us passive recipients of what happens to us.
Instead of aiming for happiness, then, I think we should aim for purpose and character. If we throw ourselves into making a difference in others’ lives, and into living out our values day to day, we’ll have fulfilling lives, because these are the things that ultimately matter. When we focus on our own satisfaction, though, we’re bound to be disappointed because we’re so self-focused. This doesn’t mean that we ignore our own legitimate needs; only that our own feelings aren’t the ultimate arbiter of whether or not our lives are worthwhile.
We all need time to ourselves, and time to rejuvenate. We need people to love, and people who love us in return. But these relationships don’t just magically happen.
The best route to fulfilling relationships is to learn how to love, not to wait around to get the kind of love you want. I’m not talking about becoming a doormat, but waiting for someone to meet all your needs is a guarantee that you’ll always wind up with the short end of the stick. Learning to love yourself, and then learning to love others appropriately and sacrificially is, in the end, far more fulfilling than waiting for your husband or boyfriend or friends or children to become perfect.
Besides, if we decide that our feelings are what matter most, we can act in direct opposition to the values that really feed our souls. We may give up on a marriage too early. We may sacrifice our children’s happiness for a relationship that we want to pursue. We’re focused on the short-term, and in the process we throw away the things that truly give ultimate satisfaction: stable relationships; inner peace that you’ve lived according to your values; even your own personal sense of honour.
Feelings are not a good measure of whether or not you’re fulfilled. A far better one is to see whether or not you’re living out your values. When we live our lives focusing on what is long-lasting and purposeful, we find inner contentment and peace. And ultimately, isn’t that a better route to happiness?