“I do what I want!” A popular phrase/philosophy whether explicitly stated or implicitly practiced. “Do what feels right!” Sage wisdom for the modern man who seeks happiness, so they say. “Whatever makes you happy” Ok, seems reasonable and satisfying if maybe a bit shortsighted. These are the popular notions of living for and in freedom during this modern age. The common ground of these adages is found in the concept of “free choice”. But is simply having the ability to choose what leads to freedom and happiness? Let’s break this down so we can achieve some clarification.
There are three important concepts to discuss in order to dive into this discussion effectively: Free choice, free will, happiness. Common and robust ideas with profound implications so, let’s try not to get lost in the endless minutia supplied by these ideas. Let’s focus, instead, on the nuts and bolts of this question, slightly revised that is, how to get to freedom and happiness. First, however, one must know what freedom and happiness are or at least have some general direction. Let’s start with freedom by breaking down the word itself.
Many conceive of freedom as something that is obtained simply when free choice is exercised for the sake of free choice itself. That somehow this ability to choose is equivalent to freedom. Inaccurate, attractive, but inaccurate and dangerous really. More on the dangers later. Freedom is a destination and like all destinations, it has boundaries that allow it to exist. Free choice can be likened to a car which does not create the location but merely provides the ability to travel there, so too is free choice not in and of itself freedom but a vehicle for travel. Free choice, which is begotten by free will, is a potential bestowed upon all humans, freedom, however, is not guaranteed. Okay, the word part now, so free is defined as “not under the control or in the power of another; able to act or be done as one wishes.” Simple enough, and I don’t believe difficult to see. It’s the “dom” that matters here which means, “jurisdiction, dignity, realm, office” which offers the actual definition. It outlines that freedom has innate boundaries and a need to respect these boundaries much like the frame of a painting gives the painting the ability to be understood as art. Now let’s reconstitute what we have deconstructed; freedom is not being under the control or power of another with the ability “to be” and act within a protected and defined realm. Freedom is to live in true power itself which has boundaries that limit limitations.
So how does happiness fit into all of this? It fits exactly in the space that freedom is outlined. Happiness occupies the domain of freedom. There is no happiness outside of freedom. But what makes happiness happiness? It is the good itself in all its many iterations, limiting and removing anything that is not good. The borders of freedom are constructed of virtue which could be understood as the sharpened ability to identify and choose the good. The ability to CHOOSE is central here because when in freedom one can choose and remain free in these choices. One becomes very intentional in their life no longer feeling compulsion as this is the opposite of being free. So, what makes something good and not bad? Can something be good for me and bad for you? How does this all work?
Offering too strict a definition of good and bad would be shortsighted but perhaps good promotes existence in all its dimensions and bad steals from existence in all its dimensions. In this understanding, there will certainly be a space for “good for you bad for me” and vice versa but it cannot be universally applied in a relativistic manner otherwise the definitions will be lost. If these definitions are lost, then there can be no real freedom as we will be unable to understand that which is “good”, leading us away from happiness. As an example of the “good for me bad for you” it can be good for someone in their circumstance to engage in physical exercise, like running, to aid them in improving their wellbeing but may be bad for another due to a physical ailment that would prevent this rigorous exercise. However, to say that my body needs nothing physical, and this is good for it would be false as it does not promote existence in any way. The body obviously does “need” in a physical manner, be it food or something more, like exercise.
Drug addiction is another good example of how good for one and not for some can be misapplied. Someone who is struggling with addiction will often use the, “it helps me get through the day” line to justify their use meaning, it’s good for them even if it’s not good for others. The truth is that anyone engaging in this pattern of behavior is edging towards destruction and already in a kind of enslavement. That which feels good is not necessarily good and that which feels bad is not necessarily bad or as J.R.R. Tolkien would say, “All that glitters is not gold”. This is where free choice can, at times, lead us into a kind of enslavement that was chosen in some respects. When in the thralls of addiction, one cannot make decisions outside of the need to use or at least decision making is greatly limited. In no way is this suggesting that addiction is a simple matter of choice as it is a multifactorial condition that requires treatment/intervention in order to move towards recovery. In no way should one be “blamed” for their addiction in the same manner that one should not be “blamed” for their cancer. The responsibility, however, is to choose to address these issues properly. In other words, to choose good. It is also true that a choice tipped the scales of the situation to lead into the addiction. Once chosen it cannot be simply reversed much like choosing to jump into a deep hole will now require someone else to come to the rescue, what one can do is to yell for help. This demonstrates our ability to have power and lose power through free choice which can lead us away from freedom. So, what are we to do?
If freedom is what leads to happiness and freedom is found by choosing “good” then we must understand what in our lives is not promoting existence in all its dimensions for us and others. Instead of always doing what we “want” let’s learn to want what is helpful for us. Finding freedom in saying no to the bad as well as finding ways to limit your limitations by no longer feeding into impossibility thinking. Instead, only think in terms of possibility with a discerning eye that allows for “no” to make room for “yes”. Happiness is found in living a good and free life which means purposeful decision-making that excludes limitations. In happiness we will find more than a feeling, we will find peace.
Author: Cory M.J. Groman has been a practicing psychotherapist for the past 8 years. Cory received his Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, and his Masters in counseling from Franciscan University of Steubenville, located in Steubenville, Ohio. Throughout his career, Cory has served in several leadership positions, including as the lead to the crisis response team while working with Talbert House in Cincinnati, Ohio. Most recently, he has served as Lead Therapist at Valley Hospital in Phoenix, AZ. He has also conducted research having been published in the journal of ADHD. He has served as faculty and written lectures for the American Physicians Institute for Advanced Professional Studies, a web-based learning center for the continuing education of medical professionals.