Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

How to Make Happiness Endure

If you want to be happy, expand your horizons.

"The more things a man is interested in, the more opportunities of happiness he has and the less he is at the mercy of fate, since if he loses one thing he can fall back upon another." -Bertrand Russell

There is something very profound in what the 20th century British philosopher says. The more interests we have, and I would add the ability to cultivate new ones, the better our chances at lifelong happiness. I have found this to be true in my own life.

I have been a distance runner since middle school, back in the early 1980's. I love to run, both the training and the racing. However, a few years ago, one of the disks in my lower back ruptured like Mount St. Helens, and I was told that I should give up running by the orthopedic surgeon who repaired my back. I still vividly remember getting into the elevator at his office and the sense of loss I felt at no longer being able to run.

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In a way, this seems trivial, and it is. Given the depth of suffering that happens in the world, this is a fairly small problem. However, as I reflected on why it was difficult for me, I discovered that running wasn't just something I did, it was a part of my identity. Soon after my surgery, I went into the local bike shop and bought a road bike. Cycling took the place of running, as I was able to continue to push myself physically and mentally, and enjoy the other benefits of this type of exercise. Plus, riding a bike fast is just good fun!

This is just one example, but "fate" can take away some pursuit, interest or passion that contributes to our happiness. However, if we have diverse interests, and are able to cultivate new ones, we are not at its mercy.

The rest of my story is that my doctor qualified his earlier statement, and said I could continue to run, just no marathons. Of course, the day will likely come when my body is no longer able to run or bike very much or at all. But that's okay, I'll find something else to do.

So, one way to make happiness endure is to have a variety of interests in life, and seek to cultivate new ones. I think it is important to cultivate interests that relate to the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of life. Then, when circumstances prevent you from pursuing one of your passions, you'll have other ones to fall back on. This form of resilience can be a key to lifelong happiness.

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Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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