The most important ingredient for true happiness

One of the benefits of being both ambitious and obsessive/compulsive is how such qualities can accelerate your career success.

I spent over twenty-six years in the law enforcement profession. I promoted quickly through the ranks due to my work ethic, which was drilled into me by my father.

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“Get to work early, stay late, and always do a little more than everyone else,” my Dad used to say.

I took his advice and in sixteen short years went from rookie police officer to chief of police.

There’s no question that ambition and relentless drive can lead to results, but there are always unwanted consequences.

I was a workaholic. There were important family events I missed. The stress started to take a toll on my health, leading to anxiety and panic attacks. Despite a handsome salary and career prestige, I was never truly happy.

“I used to be a classic workaholic, and after seeing how little work and career really mean when you reach the end of your life, I put a new emphasis on things I believe count more. These things include: family, friends, being part of a community, and appreciating the little joys of the average day.” — Mitch Albom

Artwork by John P. Weiss

Fortunately, my doctor came to the rescue. He started to ask about my artwork, and how often I made time for it. A certified Hakomi psychotherapist, my doctor was able to drill down and help me overcome the anxiety and panic attacks.

I started saying no to new commitments, carved out more time for family, focused on helping others more, and made my artwork a priority.

I was happier not because I put myself first, but because I balanced out work, family time, helping others and my artwork. There was now a sweet spot in my life.

The answer is virtue

The author Edith Hall wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal based on her book, “Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life”. Hall examines Aristotle’s perspective on happiness, which probably differs from most of our views.

Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, wrote about “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” American culture often focuses on the holy trinity of wealth, pleasure and fame. Hollywood entertainment largely revolves around these things. But do they really make us happier?

Aristotle would agree that a good life includes happiness, but not happiness based on wealth, pleasure or fame.

Aristotle lived and worked among the Macedonian royal family, who were the elites. He watched their “conspicuous consumption,” lavish lifestyles, and petty plots against one another.

Edith Hall, commenting on wealth, pleasure and fame seekers:

“Such people spend their lives acquiring material possessions or seeking sensory gratification, but on some level they know that these pursuits aren’t conducive to true happiness.”

Consider the glitterati of today’s entertainment industry. How many Hollywood icons succumb to drugs, alcohol, serial divorces, and public squabbles? Despite tremendous wealth and fame, many celebrities appear to be unhappy.

Edith Hall adds:

“Aristotle saw that these seemingly fortunate members of the elite were actually miserable. Such people spend their lives acquiring material possessions or seeking sensory gratification, but on some level they know that these pursuits aren’t conducive to true happiness. They may even recognize the right thing to do, but they are too weak or lazy to act on it.”

So, what’s the right thing to do? If being a workaholic and focusing on wealth, pleasure and fame won’t bring lasting happiness, what will?

According to Aristotle, the answer is virtue. Living our lives by the highest moral and ethical standards. This sometimes means bypassing immediate gain or pleasure for a higher good, but in the end, this will lead to a happier life.

The best possible version of yourself

Aristotle analyzed a wide range of human traits, from courage and anger to how we treat one another and regard money. He argued that we should strive for the mean between extremes.

According to the Wall Street Journal article:

“All of us possess these properties, and happiness comes from cultivating each one in the correct amount, so that it is a virtue (arete) rather than a vice.”

What does all this mean? Namely, that you should pursue a virtuous life. Acknowledge the best and worst in yourself, and strike a balance.

Hone your habits of generosity, integrity, fairness, and kindness. Find the sweet spot in your life, focusing on family, helping others, and your passions.

Edith Hall summed it up this way:

“Real happiness, Aristotle believed, comes from a continuous effort to become the best possible version of yourself.”

The other night, I was tempted to spend the evening working on new articles that might earn me some money. The drive to get ahead still courses through my thoughts and efforts.

Thankfully, I decided to visit my disabled, elderly mother instead. When you’re 85 years old with advanced Parkinson’s disease, any family visit is a blessing. It made me feel good to visit her.

After the visit, I returned to my art studio and crafted the landscape painting above this article. I didn’t paint it for money or fame. I painted it for the same reason that I visited my mother: to invest in the best possible version of myself.

How about you? Why not invest in the best possible version of yourself? Make more time for family. Help others. Strike a balance between work and passions. Pursue a virtuous life. Do these things, and a deeper sense of contentment will wash over you.

True happiness doesn’t come from wealth, pleasure or fame. Rather, it comes from an internal state of mind, anchored in the contentment only attained by living life in the best way possible.

Before you go

I’m John P. Weiss. I paint landscapes, draw cartoons and write about life. Thanks for reading!

This article first appeared in Medium

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