Martha Beck: What Redefining Virtue Can Teach You About Happiness
Of course, like any impossible task, this effort produces only exhaustion and despair. At some point, even the strongest burn out. Maybe you've reached this limit, plunging from violent outrage into numb nonresistance. Or perhaps—especially if your suffering has been intense—you've tried to find relief. Maybe you finally went to a therapist, or learned to meditate, or found yourself downward-dogging away in the yoga pants you swore you'd never wear.
These kinds of responses teach us to stop attacking the imaginary vending machine; instead, we sit down beside it, in all our furious disappointment, waiting for new insight to arise. And here's the thing—though this approach won't prevent a lifelong do-gooder from getting cancer or keep a lightning bolt from striking down the nicest person in town, that insight will arise. Following paths of stillness and curiosity, rather than rage and despair, we eventually make a fascinating discovery: Although the righteousness-reward theory hasn't worked for us so far, it contains a bright thread of truth. There is a kind of virtue that really does buy happiness. The problem is, we've been taught to use the wrong kind of virtue and expect the wrong kind of reward. We've been plunking euros into a machine geared for dollars, expecting chocolate from a machine that contains only fresh fruit. To get the machine functioning correctly, we need to tweak a couple of definitions.
Let's consider virtue first. Most of us have been taught that it's a trait synonymous with adherence to social rules: our family's way of loving, our peer group's way of achieving, our social class's politics and manners. We think it's virtuous to do what other people want. We may believe this so deeply that we override our innate inclinations. Psychologist Stanley Milgram famously designed a study in which a researcher instructed ordinary people to administer painful electric shocks to a fellow study participant (actually there were no shocks; the subject was an actor pretending to be in pain). Even when they heard a fellow human screaming and begging for mercy, many people went on shocking him just because a scientist intoned, "The experiment requires that you continue." Following rules? Not always virtuous, it seems.
Now consider happiness. You may believe it comes from external phenomena: praise, money, status, adoration. But even when we attain these things, the happiness they create is temporary and unreliable. External rewards may bring a surge of elation, but it quickly fades, leaving the millionaire still fearing financial loss, the beloved actor still suicidal, the aging supermodel still hating her body. If you've experienced this pattern—effort, followed by achievement, followed by elation, followed by a letdown—you may still be tenaciously striving, thinking just a little more money, fame or beauty will make you happy. Observe the evidence. Save your strength.
Try this: Define virtue as living in perfect alignment with what you most deeply feel to be true, and happiness as an upwelling of joy that arises directly from this alignment, regardless of external factors. Then run your own experiment. With these new definitions, you'll find that the virtue-in, happiness-out vending machine works. It really, truly does.
I've experienced this myself. Several times, I've broken the rules of my culture to follow my sense of truth—ended my marriage, left my church, chosen to be vocal in my dissent. Each time, I've lost relationships and money, experienced social shaming, even suffered threats to my life and liberty. I won't lie: It hurt. A lot. Yet, paradoxically, each choice also increased a flow of happiness that seemed to arise for no reason except that I'd stopped blocking it. I was amazed to feel peace trickling through sorrow and disappointment, gradually dyeing everything some shade of happy.
When people experience this—despite outward losses—they begin blooming like flowers, from misery to surrender to thoughtfulness to inner peace. Alignment in, joy out. In sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer, that machine works.