Ambition can be positive, and often leads to great achievements. However, inherent to ambition is sacrifice, and it is what we sacrifice on the way to achieving our assumed happiness that can eventually make us deeply unhappy. It is good to have goals and work towards them, but on the journey towards them, we must remember that there are certain sacrifices we cannot afford to make.
Happiness is perhaps the most encompassing and common aim in our lives. We judge everything in our life in terms of how it relates to our happiness. We hear people say countless times: ‘do what makes you happy’, ‘we wish you a happy life’, ‘your happiness is most important’.
What Is Happiness?
Happiness is perhaps best described as being in a state with which we are pleased and satisfied.
We take different paths on our journey to happiness. Some of us define happiness through material possessions, such as a particular house, car, or lifestyle. This is what most people are working towards when they say or think ‘I want to be happy’. Others define happiness through personal relationships, such as having a loving spouse or loving family members around them. Yet others define happiness through personal achievement in a particular field of study or work.
Unfortunately, many people meet the goals mentioned above without achieving true happiness. Many people find that although their life is full with these pursuits, there are moments of a deep and hollow emptiness that engulfs them when they find themselves suddenly free in this extremely fast and busy world that we live in. Often there is nowhere to hide from this emptiness, and it often brings us to the conclusion that we are in fact not happy, despite having achieved all our set goals.
Islam introduces us to the secrets of this happiness that eludes us. The keys to happiness that Islam introduces are sometimes surprising, but always strictly logical. The first of these keys is contentment.
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his progeny) teaches us that: “Contentment is wealth that never diminishes” and “…a treasure that never perishes.” (Mishkat al-Anwar)
The Prophet defines ‘wealth’ not through material quantity but through want. According to the Prophet, a person who does not feel needy towards something or someone in this world is wealthy, regardless of how much he possesses in material, quantitative terms. Therefore, a person who is content is very wealthy, because he does not feel he needs anything more.
Contentment is a strange concept in a world fuelled by ambition. Ambition can be positive, and often leads to great achievements. However, inherent to ambition is sacrifice, and it is what we sacrifice on the way to achieving our assumed happiness that can eventually make us deeply unhappy. It is good to have goals and work towards them, but on the journey towards them, we must remember that there are certain sacrifices we cannot afford to make.
If our ambition is not tempered by contentment, we often make sacrifices that we will later regret. Pursuing a career at the expense of family is one example, and pursuing wealth and position at the expense of religion is another. It is these kinds of sacrifices that will make us unhappy. A man came to Imam al-Sadiq (peace be upon him) with a question, because his trade journeys took him to places where he could only pray on ice. The Imam pointed to another man present in the gathering and said: “Why don’t you be like him? He is content with a smaller amount (of profit) and does not seek trade in a place where he cannot pray except on ice?” (Ibid.)
Contentment is the cure for many plagues of happiness. How many times have we grieved over what we have missed out on in the past? How many times have we spent hours and days in anxiety over what we may miss out in the future? How many times have we looked longingly at what others possess and felt sadness or jealousy? The point to note is that all such feelings are counter-productive. They harm us and do us no good. It is contentment that is the cure for these plagues of happiness.
These problems all stem from the false belief that if we are not anxious, ambitious, and covetous, we will miss out on the good things in this world. This all stems from a lack of trust in God, the All-Merciful. God is too merciful to let His beloved believing servant seek happiness through such ugly and oppressive means. Imam Hassan (peace be upon him) assures us that: “Abstaining from showing neediness never repelled sustenance, and covetousness never led to the attainment of goodness.” (Tuhaf al-Uqul)
The secret to achieving contentment is to put our trust in God, the Disposer of all affairs, and nurture in ourselves the belief that the All-Merciful God only sends our way what is best for us, and only keeps away that which is harmful for us. Granted, we must work and plan within reasonable means, but we must always believe that whatever state we are in currently is the best state for us, because otherwise the All-Merciful Creator would not have chosen it for us. Complete and absolute trust in God is the root of contentment, and contentment is one of the great keys to happiness.
The Prophet says: “God, Exalted is His Praise, says: ‘By My Majesty and Glory, I have not created a creature of mine more beloved to me that my faithful slave. This is why I named him Mu’min, just as My name is Al-Mu’min. I may deprive him of all that is between the East and the West, and that would be My good choice for him, and I may give him all that is between the East and the West, and this would be My good choice for him. So let him be pleased with My decree, patient over My afflictions, and grateful for My blessings, and I will write him, O Muhammad, among the Truthful with Me.” (Mishkat al-Anwar)