My first real job after college was on at a bank. I remember speaking to a man who had been denied credit that he felt he desperately needed. The reason he assumed he was denied was that his wife was Vietnamese. As I began to ensure the man that his wife’s country of origin had no bearing on the banks decision he interrupted me and wanted me to know we could reverse the decision because she was not really Vietnamese. She was actually from the Philippines. I wasn’t sure whether to be frustrated with the man’s acceptance of racism in the world or feel sorry because of the tragic damage he must have received to accept that this type of thing could occur. Either way, this man’s dream of happiness was greatly affected by his circumstances.
Urie Bronfenbrenner was a developmental psychologist who postulated the Bioecological Model. It describes how child development does not happen in a vacuum and is affected by the environmental influences around them. In those influences there are many layers of individual environments that each contains their own set of roles and rules that are followed. The concept is basically that our development process is multifaceted and can grow with whichever environmental structure has predominance at the time, not as a whole system but as a sum of the individual systems. I would say this process continues through our lives. The man I spoke with had obviously learned in some environment that racially motivated decision making was acceptable and could be done correctly if the right information were provided. That in no uncertain terms is horrific.
We use this process in all that we learn, even something as simple as being happy. Each person has an internal definition of what happiness is based on their environmental development and whether or not we can achieve those is based upon our individual circumstances. We respond by creating levels of happiness based on what we can achieve at any one given time. We then struggle to achieve that or more appropriately our approximation of that to find this allusive goal of happiness. This is an eternal quest and is greatly affected by the circumstances around us. People with greater resources are more likely to achieve goals centered around resources more quickly but they are not as a group happier for it. This echoes the problem at the core of the definition that can only be solved by understanding one thing.
Happiness as a whole defined by modern thought does not exist. It is an unattainable goal not because we are not able to reach our individual approximations, but because we are. The fact that we reach them and keep looking for more explains that the goal we reached was only a wrung on the ladder and not the destination. It was a step in the journey and not the end. It is similar to Zeno’s Dichotomy Paradox. If each goal attained creates another, the final destination is only arrived at when we stop. Our individual goals may be easier than some peoples and harder than others. Whether we reach them or do not reach them is based upon our actions but the attainment of those goals in and of themselves does not mean we are happy. A person who is unhappy is not suffering from poor goal setting and a lack of motivation. They feel the way they do because they realize the goals have not provided more than a momentary chemical rush of endorphins or electrical activity in our brain and fleeting euphoria, not lasting happiness.
Rather than recognizing that the problem is in the method, we continue to tweak the goals to try and achieve the end sooner. We substitute convenience for rationality and consider it progress. We lower our standards and call it higher thought. We will never achieve what we can not substantiate and we will never find peace without quelling the storm of our desire.
Happiness is a dream we cannot achieve. Joy and fulfillment are real possibilities. If we begin to recognize our method is faulty and remove the constraint of achievement from our thought processes, we can begin to understand that the circumstances affect our responses but not our outlook. This is not a semantic argument. Joy and fulfillment are not synonymous with happiness. They actually counter it. Regardless of circumstance, joy can be understood. It is not centered on what we achieve but what we hold true inside. It is based on value and not perception. It is built by character, not reward.
As a Christian, these attributes are impossible without God. Character is not built without a model to copy. Joy is the fundamental response to God for his promised redemption. Truly achieving these without God is impossible as well, but trying to substitute happiness for them is simply settling for second best and then not even being able to get that.