I hate to break it to you, but…

You know that conversation you keep having in your head on repeat, because you never said what you should have said, when you had the chance?

Today’s conversation in which I didn’t participate fully: Why we should do “the right thing” even when it’s difficult to do so.

The consensus: Doing the right thing makes us happy.

I didn’t speak up, because what I really wanted to point out was that doing the right thing doesn’t make you happy. And I don’t actually believe that.

Or… maybe I do.

It’s like this:  Most of the time, doing the right thing doesn’t make you happy. It might make you stronger, kinder, smarter, or more patient–but let’s face it: experiences like that almost never come with grins and giggles.

Experiences like that don’t even come with a deep, abiding sense of satisfaction that while what you are doing is difficult, it will all be worth it in the end.  If they did, they wouldn’t have the power to shape you into something better than the you who first engaged with that experience.

Making a choice that has a highly probable chance of reward  isn’t doing “the right thing”; it’s doing the logical thing:

  • If I don’t succumb to this addiction, I will live a healthier life and enjoy better relationships.
  • If I don’t say what I’m really thinking right now, I won’t have to try to take it back later. 
  • If I tell the  truth about this, I might lose this friendship, but I won’t lose my sense of integrity.

1+1=2. Duh. Of course doing those things make you happy.

But some of our most important choices cannot be made with expectation of–even eventual–personal reward. Sometimes doing the right thing will benefit other people–even strangers or future generations you may never meet.

And what if doing those right things is going to result in diminished prospects or vastly increased pain or uncertainty or loneliness for yourself? What if it opens you up to sustained or unending recurrences of that pain? What then? Is it no longer “the right thing”?

The reality is, most of the time, the experiences that shape us most profoundly don’t have a foreseeable end. They are of the “thorn in the flesh” variety that Paul spoke of–those difficulties that afflict us  relentlessly and come back again and again, just when we think we’ve seen the last of them. Those are the things that refine our characters–and they don’t make us happy.

Yes, eventually, that refining process can  result in greater emotional/spiritual/psychological stability, which can translate into greater capacity for happiness–but let’s face it: capacity doesn’t equate with content, most of the time.

I think it is dangerous to promise younger generations that doing the right thing will make them happy. It is setting them up for disillusionment and failure. It would be more accurate to promise that doing the right thing will make them better humans. And I guess that’s a happy thought. So maybe I’m talking in circles?




2 responses to “I hate to break it to you, but…

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