The pursuit of happiness is one of the major foundations of America. We all are engaged in the search for what makes us happy. We spend our lives looking for it. But what if the very thing we work out entire lives to obtain could be the very thing that kills us?
We all want to experience happiness. In our mind, happiness is this place, this oasis in a dry desert. It’s hard to tell if its real or a mirage, but we long for it nonetheless. If we begin to examine closer, we see that happiness is not quite what it seems.
Happiness And The Lie
We’ve been fed an endless filling of bullshit when it comes to the American Dream and the pursuit of happiness. We’ve been led to believe that we deserve to feel happiness, and that a purely happy life is achievable by various avenues. Our culture constantly encourages the pursuit of happiness. Products, advertising, the general marketing world, stories, songs, and media are all using this lie of happiness as a chief motive for manipulating consumers (all of us) into doing what they want us to do in order for them to be successful. We keep doing it because we don’t think it’s a lie. We believe we are moving towards something that will ultimately benefit us. We think we are providing the means and paving the way towards happiness for ourselves, our children, etc.
Happiness And The Truth
“So many people now think, ‘If I’m not happy, there’s something wrong with me.’ We seem to have forgotten that feelings are like the weather – changing all the time; it’s as normal to feel unhappy as it is to have rainy days,” said Russ Harris, a British-born Australian doctor and author of The Happiness Trap, in which he argues popular wisdom on happiness is misleading and destined to make you miserable. “Increasingly people are developing anxiety about their anxiety and dissatisfaction about their dissatisfaction. Painful emotions are increasingly seen as unnatural and abnormal and we refuse to accept that we can’t always get what we want. This sets you up for a struggle with reality, because the things that make life rich and full – developing a meaningful career, or building an intimate relationship, or raising children – do not just give you good feelings, they also give you plenty of pain.”
Happiness is defined as “Enjoying, showing, or marked by pleasure, satisfaction, or joy”.
In western cultures, happiness simply means feeling good.
I read an article once where Dr. Russ Harris spoke to a room of about a hundred psychologists. Dr. Harris asked the room to raise their hand if they had had the thought “I’m not good enough” at some point in the day…Every hand in the room was raised.
So if a room full of psychologists haven’t figured out how to be happy all the time, what hope is there for the rest of us? Maybe it’s our definition that isn’t right.
We are pre-programmed to think negative thoughts and to feel uncomfortable emotions. We are descended from the most pessimistic of our ancestors. The ones that looked for a tiger behind every tree, the ones that were afraid of being eaten and the ones that did what they needed to do to be accepted by the tribe are the ones that survived. The song of our evolutionary past is ‘don’t get killed’. And not being killed meant being obsessed with danger and rejection in every moment.
We no longer live in a world fraught with the danger of death at any time, but our minds and emotions haven’t caught up yet. The fear we feel when we set out to do something we’ve never done before and the thoughts in our head that tell us we’re not good enough are part of the human condition. In some situations it saves our lives. In others, it makes us feel we’re abnormal, broken, sick, wrong and dysfunctional because no matter how many books we read, courses we take and affirmations we say, we can’t undo our programming. So we spend our days trying to find happiness by any means necessary.
Happiness In A Substance
I think this moment happens to most people who would be categorized as “millennials.” This moment where you give up and decide to start numbing yourself to forget the lack of happiness and try to create artificial happiness. For some, it doesn’t go past alcohol or lighter drugs. For others, this begins the dangerous path to self destructive patterns and serious dangerous substances. Why it seems millennials struggle with this more than other recent generations is for another conversation. But I believe this is probably pretty consistent no matter what generation you belong to. We get to a point where it seems hopeless to pursue happiness. Eventually we may realize that it really is hopeless, just not how we thought. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Happiness And Relationships
Maybe you tried filling that void in relationships. I know I did! This was my drug for a big chunk of my life. I thought that someone out there would make me happy. I hurt a lot of people and drained the life out of them trying to make myself happy and expecting too much from one person. This is seriously dangerous territory. If you feel like someone in your life is like this, do yourself a favor and run.
The danger is that someone who is in this state of mind can’t truly love anyone but themselves. They will ultimately be self-absorbed, and extremely biased towards victimizing themselves at every turn. They will blame others for their unhappiness, and never take responsibility for their actions, their feelings, their intentions, or their lackluster approach towards life. They are painfully unhealthy at the most intimate levels. If they have been that way for a long time, it won’t be immediately apparent because they have learned to adapt and appear healthier than they really are. But as soon as they feel like they have you, the truth will come out.
I purposely don’t address the person themselves because they most likely aren’t reading this anyway. And if they do, they will automatically think this isn’t them. They will write me off as ridiculous and say things to themselves like “he just doesn’t know,” “I really am lonely and empty and broken,” etc. When you’re in this place mentally and emotionally, it’s almost impossible for anyone to get through to you and bring you back to reality. The longer you’ve been there, the harder it is to get out. When thinking of great examples or analogies, C.S.Lewis’s “The Great Divorce” comes to mind.
Happiness And The Past
There are people who think the grass is always greener on the other side, and there are people who think the grass is always greener in the past. They obsess over the glory days of when they perceive their happiness was at its peak in their life. The funny thing about this is that its almost always a biased memory that leans in the direction we want it to. We often unconsciously send our memories through a filter that best serves the purposes we have in the present when we choose to reminisce. Therefore, that time when you thought you were so happy, it probably wasn’t quite the way you remember, but your memory skews the truth of the moment in favor of what you want to feel about that moment, thereby rewriting history, as it were.
Besides the fact that our past and the way we remember it is largely relative to how we want to feel about it, the same can be said about the present and future! It is unhealthy to reflect on the past and wish you could go back to the glory days, because you neglect the present and future. You ignore or miss opportunities to improve your life now so that you can move forward on the best foot. This process of looking back longing for the better days will do a few things:
- It will cause you to miss out on the moments and opportunities that are happening right in front of you
- It will inflict sadness, depression, and loneliness because you are focusing on things that are completely out of your control. (Until we figure out how to travel through time, I guess).
- And it will keep you extremely self-absorbed, never able to love or care about those around you.
Redefining A Happy Life
William Morris once said:
“The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life.”
I think it’s odd that I’m intensely more aware of moments of happiness after a tragic event or post-trauma. There are studies, though, that suggest that we are immensely more likely to find happiness or consider our life to be a good and happy life if we are acutely aware of the details of daily life. We learn to appreciate the smallest moments, causing a greater sense of purpose and fulfillment.
In the last year or so, I’ve noticed that I deeply appreciate good music, or that people’s stories can move me to tears when nothing could penetrate my emotional barriers before. Things and people in life can now strike a chord within me that resounds throughout the halls of my soul in a way that I’ve never experienced before. It’s in these moments that I feel truly happy. So in a weird way, I could say that I’m happier now than I’ve ever been before, not despite of, but because of the trauma and pain I’ve experienced.
What if we could all just stop a moment or two a day and appreciate the life we have been given, regardless of where we are? I wonder if we wouldn’t find more happiness each day. I wonder if we wouldn’t feel fulfilled. I wonder if we wouldn’t be better people because of it. I hope that we can all adopt this, myself included. I still fail all the time. I still struggle with feeling deep and intense sadness or discontentment with my life all the time. This blog post is as much for me as it is for anyone.
Maybe a lack of happiness is actually just a disconnection from what is bigger than who we are individually. I think we are all always a part of this massive body that we call “humanity.” We are most fulfilled when we are together. We are most loved, and joyful, and at peace when we are in community with those we truly know, whom we let our guard down and share in the deeper things of life. So maybe we are just discontent or depressed because we have let ourselves be cut off from the big picture.
I hope to have more moments where I can appreciate the details. I hope to share more moments like these with the people I love, and even with strangers. Anyone can be a part of something magical, we just have to be ready and inviting, or willing to accept the invitation.