We have taken great pains in this blog to point out what we see as one of the easiest and most destructive traps for people to fall into--namely, the sense that "things" (be they objects, relationships, or achievements) will make you happy. Such striving, while endlessly praised in Western (and increasingly Eastern) society, is, in our opinion, the main source of suffering for human beings.
Put simply, the man who relies on external objects or events to be happy will never be satisfied, as the high from achieving one goal will eventually morph into angst about something new. Got good grades in school? Great. Where are you going to college? Grad school? How about that first job? Promotion? And on and on and on.
Nevertheless, many people dismiss such concerns, stating that if only they could have...this job, or that spouse, or those children...then they would be happy. Thus, we found it fascinating to watch Michael Jordan's acceptance speech into the Hall of Fame last week. In a nutshell, Jordan--considered by many the best to ever play the game--used his speech as an opportunity to build himself up and tear foes down. As Yahoo columnist Adrian Wojnarowski put it: "When basketball wanted to celebrate Jordan as the greatest player ever, wanted to honor him for changing basketball everywhere, he was petty and punitive....Once and for all, Michael: It’s over. You won."
What is so fascinating is that despite this clear evidence that Jordan is, at root, an unhappy person, we have no doubt most people would jump at the chance to switch places with him, confident they would appreciate what should be, based on the standards of Western society, a very satisfying life. Yet what is missing in this analysis is that you cannot separate Jordan the superstar from Jordan the vindictive anti-hero. In other words, Jordan became "great" because of his legendary will to win at all costs--it is, in short, an integral part of "who" he believes himself to be. Thus the terrible irony that this character trait both drove him to greatness and prevents him from being happy.
The obvious lesson is that true happiness comes not from external "stuff," but rather from within. As Pico Iyer put it in a recent NY Times piece on remembering 9/11, he has met many "cheerful people" in his travels. "But if that cheer is genuine, I’m not sure if they’d be feeling better or worse now than they were on Sept. 11, 2001. Only more compassionate, perhaps. Looking to our circumstances for strength, solace or support is like dancing at the edge of a very deep grave."