Actors, Astronauts, and that Thing We Call Happiness

happiness

Well Heath Ledger is dead – another young person gone in their prime. I must admit this loss hit me harder than your average death as Heath hailed from my home city of Perth, was also a father, and apparently battled depression.

Why is it that Heath Ledger and all these other celebrities we see going to rehab – Britney Spears, Lindsey Lohan, etc – are/ were seemingly so unhappy? They have the world at their fingertips, right? Well from my experience there is more to happiness then first meets the eye. The depression I mentioned at the start of the article is now long behind me, and I would like to share what I consider to be 4 key ingredients to a happy life that may help to explain all this unhappiness we see.

Pleasure

The word “celebrity” conjures images of a glamorous and exciting life filled with abundant pleasures. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Well there is no getting around it: experiencing pleasure is one prerequisite for a fulfilling life. But if pleasure was the only prerequisite, then I am sure we would not being seeing all these celebrities with their fame and wealth spiral into black holes of depression and addiction. What’s missing? In my opinion, it comes down to three things: meaning, goals, and relationships.

Meaning

Heath Ledger always struck me as a guy who chased his dreams and was true to his passion for acting. But did he find meaning in this? I don’t know. It would seem, though, that like me he found much of his purpose once he became a parent:

“You look at death differently. It’s a catch-22. I feel good about dying now, because I feel like I am alive in [Matilda]. But at the same time, you don’t want to die because you want to be around for the rest of her life.” – Heath Ledger, responding to how having a child changed his life.

In fact we hear all the time about stars who want to be known for more than being an actor (Angelina Jolie) or a rock star (Bono). They stand in stark contrast to other celebrities who are out of control and who continually enter and leave rehab like it is a trip to the local supermarket.

The truth is we all have our ups and downs. One key to happiness is to live a meaningful life where we have a self-generated purpose that possesses personal significance, rather than one that is dictated by society’s expectations. This won’t necessarily prevent us from getting down every so often, but it is a fairly good preventative measure to help stop us hitting rock bottom. Another way to put this is that we need something that gives us purpose as we go about our ordinary, day-to-day activities.

Goals

Goals are incredibly important for a happy life, but perhaps not in the way you initially think. Conventional wisdom seems to tell us that it is the fulfilment of goals that makes us happy. The truth, though, is that happiness has much more to do with having goals than it does with attaining them. This may help explain why so many celebrities who are on top of the world in terms of the fame and status they hold end up finding themselves “lost”.

A classic example of the over-emphasis placed on attaining goals is the astronaut Buzz Aldrin. In his autobiography, Buzz said that after walking on the moon everything else in life seemed insignificant. Don’t get me wrong here, attaining goals is a wonderful thing. But the high we get from such achievement is normally temporary, compared to the general sense of happiness and purpose that meaningful goals can give us.

Relationships

In many ways, the quality of our life depends on having rich and satisfying relationships with other people. I’m sure – in fact I know – that Heath Ledger had many many friends. And yet I am left wondering whether the transient lifestyle actors have makes it hard to properly maintain relationships, particularly with a partner. As we know, Heath separated from Michelle Williams and I’m sure this didn’t help his state of mind.

Ultimately it is impossible to know exactly what is driving the actions of another individual. Life, happiness, and depression are all complex and personal things that are experienced on an individual basis. But as Carl Rogers once said, “What is most personal is most general.” I think we can all learn something about ourselves from the lives of these people that, one first glance, seem so different from our own.

RIP Heath.

Photo by Patrick Emerson

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15 thoughts on “Actors, Astronauts, and that Thing We Call Happiness”

  1. Peter, great article!
    I thought of you right away when I heard about Heath because I couldn’t remember if you were from Perth or not. What a sad loss. Heath was in his prime as a person, actor and father. His untimely death can remind us how precious life is, how we should cherish our loved ones and how to look for meaning rather than mere pleasure.
    Thanks for this.

  2. Hi Peter, A GREAT post and one that will ring true for many. I think a key component is the ability to redefine new goals as you attain the ones you were striving for. We all need to continue our growth and I think having felt “I made it” isn’t an end but a beginning to “what’s next?”. Thanks for the wonderful post! Gratefully, Jenny

  3. Another great post. I was lucky enough to be depressed when I was a kid. It was because I was fairly isolated and unchallenged, and the experience has been great motivation ever since. I’ve never made the mistake of seeking mere pleasure. Instead I try to live my basic philosophy: “Stay curious and open to life. No matter what happens keep learning and growing. Find what you love to do and find a way to share it with others.”

  4. I tried to leave a comment yesterday, but received a fatal error. I just wanted to reaffirm the suggestion that you read What Color Is Your Parachute? Bolles has a lot of good suggestions for people who want to change careers. Good luck! Keep us posted. We’re rooting for you.

  5. Thanks, Peter. I have been reading your blog for a bit now. I also struggle with depression – it has been getting much better through meditation and awareness practice, but is still a formidable opponent in my life. I, too, was hit hard by Heath’s death – I can’t really even articulate why – just so sad on so many levels. I really appreciated your article.

    Thanks for this great blog. Best to you for a restful weekend to enjoy your family!

  6. Like the first person who commented here, I also thought of you right away when I heard the very sad news about Heath Ledger’s death as he was close to your age and from the same place. What you say about what constitutes real and lasting satisfaction and grounding in life rings true for me. I had heard Heath make that comment about fatherhood that you quote in this entry, and I think it is a strong indicator of why he died. His daughter had been taken away from him, and his relationship with the child’s mother was ruptured. So he had public acclaim, but intense loneliness. He couldn’t sleep and hung out with virtual strangers in the middle of the night. I don’t think that he killed himself intentionally, but I do believe he was going through some very intense pain and wasn’t thinking clearly when he took that fatal mix of pills. I’m very sad about what happened to him and feel so sorry for his heartbroken family.

  7. thanks for the post. having just suffered a setback, what you’ve mentioned in the article, particularly ‘One key to happiness is to live a meaningful life where we have a self-generated purpose that possesses personal significance, rather than one that is dictated by society’s expectations.’ has been a great boost to keep on moving.

  8. I agree, Sue – there is a quote that says something like “if we don’t have something larger to serve, we will self-serve”. To me, that speaks to what Peter has written here — finding something I’m passionate about to put my energy into….otherwise depression can be the thing that’s “served” and that my energy goes to….there is sometimes a moment of choice if I can pay attention and notice it where I could sit down in front of the TV with a bag of junk food and have the energy drained out of me, or I could make a different choice: go for a walk, help out with a local fundraiser I care about, be fully attentive with my family, call a friend, etc. Sometimes I have no idea what my “self-generated purpose” is if I think that has to be a huge thing like “I am here to cure cancer”. But I can connect with that idea on the level of something like “my purpose today can be to bring kindness into my own life and others’ lives as often as I remember to do so….”
    Wishing everyone some moments of kindness to self and others today…

  9. Jen is right. One of the purpose in life is to help others. If Heath would’ve put his fame & fortune towards helping others in need, I think he would have a more fulfilling life and still be alive today.

  10. This is such an excellent post! It would seem to me that those four words define who we are– and, how we are vieved as “happy” or not.

    Thanks for the great post Peter!

    Blake

  11. Asia'h Epperson

    Totally agree, As a celebrity you need to do more than just sing or act. The exposure you get allows you to do many more things to people not so lucky.

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