The fundamental ethos of the United States of America is ‘pursuit of happiness.’ Life and liberty are almost secondary, though, granted, required for such a pursuit. But the pursuit itself is what it’s all about. As if plagued by an insatiable hunger and parched of thirst, the pursuit of happiness is a maddening race to ill-being and frustration with life.
The problem is twofold; one, the meaning of happiness. What is happiness? The origin of the word, from Old Norse and Old English, in about the 14th century, is ‘hap’ and means ‘luck’ or ‘chance.’ Luck is not something you pursue; it is happenstance. The concept of happiness has changed over the centuries and through cultures. How would a native of two thousand years ago be happy? Happiness is, today, generally defined as ‘a state of well-being and contentment.’ Without any pursuit, many people experience moments of happiness everyday, without even knowing they are happy at the time. Happiness is more a by-product than anything definitive that can be pursued.
The second problem with this American ethos is ‘pursuit.’ If you recall those moments of your own happiness, it did not involve pursuit. Or, if it was in the act of pursuit, the happiness experienced was because the goal of pursuit was forgotten. Happiness was not the objective. And there it was. The pursuit of happiness is like chasing a rainbow. The more you approach, the more it recedes. There may be moments of thrilling excitement and enjoyable fun in the pursuit, there can be enthusiasm and passion, in which there may be moments of happiness, but for the most part, pursuit can be tiring, frustrating and disappointing. Happiness based on brief experiences of heightened stimulation cannot sustain itself day after day, month after month, year after year. Millions of people in the United States of America experience exhaustion and illness, as a result of this never ending pursuit for something that cannot be attained by pursuit. Moreover, even if happiness should be attained, the guiding principle is pursuit so any current happiness would soon be disregarded in favor of the pursuit, because the pursuit is what it is all about.
What is pursuit? The original Anglo-French word, from about the 14th century, ‘persuete,’ translates as persecution, ie, to go after, to seek, to get ’em, to persecute, to prosecute, to pursue. It’s aggressive. Because in today’s world happiness is often associated with the aggressive acquisition of material possessions, relationships, relative knowledge, control and power, and because of our common tendency to view our own status in comparison to that of others, there is a mad, feverish effort to pursue happiness, not for it’s own value, but to feel ‘on top of the world’ compared to others; and yet, despite the maddening pursuit, there is really little attainment of happiness, little evidence of substantial well-being and contentment.
Well-being and contentment do not subtract from dynamism, productivity, achievement, and innovation. Human beings are very highly animated, extra-ordinarily active, to the point of being over active. Well-being and contentment support dynamism by making it less stressful, less pressured, and more fun. Don’t confuse lack of ambition as equivalent to well-being and contentment. At the same time, don’t confuse lack of ambition with what is typically considered passiveness. Passiveness can be very comfortable, and appropriate. It is open, receptive, responsive and fluid. It allows for options and adaptations, the capacity for which is an ingredient in happiness. Passiveness is like a wild animal at rest, in repose, and, yet, at the same time, acutely alert and aware of it’s environment. This state of restful alertness is a component of baseline happiness. As it stands today, in the pursuit of happiness model, there appears fixed goal posts as to what constitutes happiness. The pursuit of happiness has become a feverish compulsion of assertively making it happen, of getting there. The ability to simply passively receive happiness, to let it happen, to be in it, without the effort of pursuit is foreign, and needs to become familiar ‘…life, liberty and the reception of happiness.’
So, as a national ethos, the pursuit of happiness, doesn’t work too well; the reception of happiness might work quite well. We hold these truths to be self evident, that all peoples are inherently endowed by their existence with certain fundamental inalienable rights including life, liberty and the reception of happiness. The means and methods of reception are different than those of pursuit. How does one go about receiving happiness? Learn to relax, be calm, be passive, be receptive; be like a wild animal, restfully alert. If you’d like to explore further, visit the blog post The Advaita Approach to Mental Health.
In the developmental model presented here, the Senior Citizen phase begins in the mid 80’s and extends on to the end of life. There is almost no research on which to base information about this stage of life. Unlike research and information about the developmental stages and needs of childhood and adolescence which is voluminous, the senior citizen enters unknown territory. However, there is good reason to speculate that transcendence is a developmental need at this stage. Transcendence is a purely spiritual need. It is the drawing of consciousness away from the objective world, beyond the boundaries of what is known and understood. It is not avoidance or a withdrawal in the negative sense. Rather, it is moving towards a whole new realm of consciousness; a realm in which all the developmental needs of the mind and the body are of no interest.
Transcendence will only become an emerging need if the previous needs have been satisfied. That means the needs and tasks of the elder adult must have been completed. For that to have happened, the needs and tasks of the middle adult must have been completed and satisfied. For that to happen, all the needs and tasks of the early adult must have been satisfied. And so on all the way back through infancy. In a great majority of the population, needs and tasks from any one stage carry over to the next. The middle adult crisis is a way whereby some of these backlogged needs are acknowledged and satisfied. Still, most elder adults continue to be impacted by the forces and drives of earlier stages such as the needs of industriousness, competency, identity and intimacy. Consequently, it is rare to find an elder adult who can integrate their experiences without some regrets and some despair. It is even rarer to find an elder adult beginning to feel the stirrings of a need for transcendence and understand that need in the positive light of spiritual development.
There is little the senior citizen need do. Transcendence is a conscious, willing relinquishment of all that is known. Perhaps the best advice is simply “let go.” Although the body may continue to function and the mind may continue to perceive, both are deteriorating. Consciousness can now “relax” into itself freed from its attachment to the conceptualizations and images of the mind and the corporeal drives of the body. There are no longer psycho–emotional needs or bio–physical forces demanding attention. There is only the utter simplicity and nakedness of being. There can be an overwhelming sense of fulfillment – and freedom.
The developmental needs of the elder adult make up relatively new territory. It wasn’t that long ago that the average life expectancy was about 40 years. The elder adult begins this stage of life at about 60 years and extends into the early 80’s. Some individuals remain very active and vibrant well into their 90’s. As the average life expectancy extends even beyond the century mark, developmental needs and tasks will likely be reinterpreted.
During this phase of life, the children have grown, moved out and have started a family of their own. The career is winding down. It is a culminating period. The end of life is near. The issues of closure and completion begin to become predominant. Unfinished tasks and unsaid words may become important. The major task at this stage of life is to actualize the self, to integrate the wide range of experience gained over the many decades; to assimilate and synthesize all that has been learned. This amalgamation of experience yields a wisdom which can be handed over to younger generations.
Unfortunately, our modern culture is extremely youth oriented. The wisdom and knowledge of the self actualized elder adult is often ignored or neglected by the younger generation in favor of the newest trend or the latest fad. An elder adult may experience loneliness, uselessness and despair. Some of the activities which can help the elder adult meet the challenges and needs of this stage include:
- Volunteer in the community in ways which allow working with younger generations
- Enjoy quiet time to reflect upon the life that has been lived, the stages that have been passed through, the connections between them and ways in which the complexities of a life lived have woven a pattern which now at this stage can be discerned and appreciated.
- Enjoy social time with friends and family; grandchildren and great grandchildren can bring particular joy and contentment
- Be physically active as much as possible without strain;
- Enjoy the leisure time which comes with retirement in whichever way brings the most happiness.
- If handicapped, bed-ridden or in some way incapacitated, allow others to do for you – be open to receiving the care of others. Remember that they too have developmental needs and caring for others may be a large part of their task – just as it was for you at that stage.
Failure to make the time to integrate the experiences of a lifetime can result in an unfinished life, regrets, a negative attitude and a denial of the reality that has occurred yielding a sense of disgust with one’s life. This can all be countered with introspection, self analysis and meditation. These activities can become an important part of the elder adult’s life and if developed can give tremendous support to the next phase of development.