Happiness has become our obsession. Ask most people what they want in life and “to be happy” will probably figure somewhere along the line.
This has been engendered, exacerbated, and exploited by all sorts of individuals and organisations wanting happiness to feel attainable. If only we know the secret, buy the right stuff, set the right goals, and make the right choices. After all, we “deserve to be happy” and “happiness is a fundamental human right” that we should all be free to pursue.
So Many Books…
Whenever I go on holiday I like to spend time choosing some books to read. I had been given a free audiobook credit on Audible, so had a decision to make. Out of hundreds of thousands of titles I needed to narrow it down to, well one. Not easy. I scrolled down the page, and Amazon had decided it wanted to give me a book on the theme of happiness. Boy was it trying to ram happiness down my throat. I scrolled through the suggestions…
Happy, The Happiness Project, Stumbling on Happiness, The Happiness Advantage, The Happiness Hypothesis, The How of Happiness, Authentic Happiness, 10% Happier, The Secret of Happiness, Hardwiring Happiness, Delivering Happiness, The Happiness Equation, The Happiness Makeover, The Little Book of Happiness, The Big Book of Happiness, You Can Buy Happiness, You Can’t Buy Happiness, A Short Guide to a Happy Life, 201 Simple Steps to a Happier Life, Overwhelmed by Happiness.
(OK, I might have made a few of those up…)
As if the computer could feel my pain (maybe I hurt its feelings when I shouted at it):“If happiness was as simple as everyone is making out, why are there so many frigging books about it!?” I landed on one that caught my attention…
The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman – Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. A very good “listen”, and a book that inspired me to make a decision. To forget and reject the pursuit of happiness. To take the idea of “happy” out of the equation all together. I wish the title of the book didn’t have the word in it, though it was probably only the keyword that steered me towards it, so maybe it was for the best.
The Un-Pursuit Pursuit
There has been loads written and said about happiness being a silly thing to pursue. But almost all of them then spell out their own path that ends up attempting to lead their audience to the “ultimate happiness”.
It’s the cyclical rabbit warren that parallels the fad diet industry.
I once watched with amazement as a celebrity TV doctor clumsily debunked a number of popular diets. In a segment that seemed to be heading for a good message of balance, slow and steady progress, and wisdom. However, he then revealed the ultimate solution…he had developed the “Un-Fad Diet” system.
It’s the same with happiness. People write about the absurdity of pursuing happiness through some populist means, and then go on to explain the true path to happiness (their own slightly tweaked version of everything that’s gone before).
I’ve never really understood the fascination with pursuing happiness. It’s too complicated. To me it seems no different to pursuing confusion or warm. Say for a minute that everyone wanted to be “confused” because it put us in an optimal state of human experience. Where would you start? How would you embark on the pursuit of confusion?
It’s near-on impossible to pin down. I mean, you recognise it when you feel it. But as you start to unpick it then you lose hold of it. Confusion is momentary, it’s a response to a set of circumstances not created by your own will.
Happiness is the same.
“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” – Albert Camus
There’s a flip side to all this talk of happiness. The fact that the more we pursue happy, the more unhappy we believe ourselves to be. Just by thinking that the search for happiness is a noble pursuit, we might jump to the conclusion that because we’re pursuing happy, we must be unhappy.
But what if the only reason we think we’re unhappy is because we’re bombarded with messages about the many surefire ways to make us happy? What if we’re actually doing alright? What if it’s the very belief in the existence and ideal of happiness that causes unhappiness in the first place?
Looking at and looking for happiness is like looking for a snowball in a blanket of snow. It’s there, but only in so much as it’s a possibility born of imagination.
The pursuit of happiness is a strange thing to even want to consciously embark on because by nature, as Camus says if we consciously pursue it we deny ourselves of its possibilities. By letting go of all hopes of it, we invite it in with open arms. But then we’re at risk of coming up with yet another path to happiness – the un-pursuit pursuit.
Perhaps we just need to forget happiness all together. Screw it. Reject it. And here is why I am not pursuing happiness any longer…
A Pursuit Never Ends Well
Either the thing gets away, or worse, you actually catch it. Then you realise that once you have it that’s probably not going to be good enough for more than a quick hit. The hedonic treadmill means you will soon return to a state of normality.
A Pursuit Chases Something
“When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float.”
Happiness is kind of abstract. When you chase it you’ll never experience it. This is what Alan Watts described as The Backwards Law, and defines one of the problems with Positive Thinking.
The more you try to suppress negative thoughts, the louder they get, and the more down on yourself you become. This is when we might engage in what Mark Mark Manson calls the “Feedback Loop from Hell”. We feel bad about feeling bad, guilty for feeling guilty, angry about getting angry, and anxious about feeling anxious.
Striving for Security
So often happiness and security are used synonymously. We think that if we are more secure and comfortable we will be happy. But this actually unpicks one of the keys to a meaningful existence, which is to share our experience with others. Our drive for security tears us apart from one another. It puts up walls and gates to keep people out, and inadvertently traps us in, isolates us, and makes us feel less safe.
We withdraw into the place that actually creates uncertainty and anxiety. We think it’s the outside world that causes fear, but actually it’s the fact that we are isolated from it that does the job.
Alan Watts said that security is an illusion and that we are by nature insecure. But when we try to deny our insecurities with all sorts of cover-ups we actually increase it. Only when we acknowledge its presence in our life do we stand a chance of developing a sense of calmness and inner peace.
The Danger of Goals
I’m a big advocate of setting meaningful goals to work towards in life. But I’m also very wary of them when they are set in the wrong way. In other words, when they are linked to future happiness. If I tell myself, “I must achieve this goal otherwise I will never be happy”, then I’m putting unrealistic pressure on the outcome.
Instead, goals are intermediate moments, which serve to direct us towards the things that matter most. Goals are not the point, they are simply what we use to face ourselves on the path we want to walk. The Path rather than the goal IS the whole purpose.
Happiness is Not Real
It’s just a word. Words are representations of abstractions. It has origins along with luck and fortune, which are things that “happen” to us. The way we’ve developed our understanding of the word has been really messed up.
According to the dictionary happiness is “the state of being happy”, which is a feeling or a LOOK. Happy is an appearance in someone else: “Sarah came in looking happy”. I bet Sarah’s completely unaware of the fact that she is happy in that moment. Maybe other things…excited, at peace, calm, tranquil, joyful, feeling pretty good, etc
Usually we don’t recognise our happiness until we look back from the future. We don’t remember the little distractions and worries that didn’t amount to anything. Happiness is often experienced in the act of remembering more than it was perhaps consciously felt in the actual moment.
Why do we care about happy so much? Why not concentrate on things we can influence. Happiness is to inner-tranquility, as pleasure is to enjoyment.
Over to You
Can we really pursue happiness? Is it something worth engaging in? How do you feel about it? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, please leave a response in the comments below.