Perhaps it’s because one of the inalienable rights specified in the American Declaration of Independence is the pursuit of happiness, but recently it seems the search for happiness is everywhere. Books on happiness, courses extolling the seven habits of happy people, there’s happiness conferences, and expos, and magazines, and TV shows. The need for happiness seems to be showing up everywhere I look.
It comes up as a theme in coaching: people worried that they are not happy; that they are living below the happiness quotient they have deemed appropriate for their lives. It’s as though life has dealt them a poor deal if their Facebook updates and Instagram photos can’t broadcast a constant stream of a happy life lived in endless bliss. I hear it implied in New Year’s resolutions – this desire to be happier, I see in workplaces – glum employees who can’t seem to fathom out why their leaders or workplace cant make them happy and more engaged with their work.
All this striving for happiness makes me unhappy. There are ominous overtones to the 2007 dystopian novel, Blind Faith by Ben Elton. Post an apocalyptic flood, Earth’s remaining survivors obsessively blog and upload their lives in narcissistic glory believing “only perverts do things in private”. There is an unquestioned belief in a panopticon society where everyone gets to see what everyone is doing – no curtains, constant live streaming, endless sharing and offering up the details of your life in nauseating detail.
The conundrum is what to upload when life is just pretty mediocre, or worse yet, darn right hellish. No one really relishes posts that detail descriptions of arthritic pains that emerge with the cold weather, nursing the frail or helping dyslexic children read. Skiing in Aspen, posing on the Spanish Steps, attending Oprah’s gala dinner – now these are such stuff on which dreamy lives are made.
The stories that raised us didn’t show Cinderella and her Prince Charming having an almighty argument over who was going to collect the kids after sports’ practice. Snow White didn’t find herself weeping in despair with another load of washing that the grubby, miner-dwarves had left scattered all over the house. Aladdin didn’t divorce Jasmine over irreconcilable differences; Pinocchio didn’t go to therapy for his sociopathic tendencies.
Even our more contemporary stories and films show the transformation of consciousness occurring within a 120-minute story arc or a 400-page novel. In spite of our own sense of reality, we form a view that our individual lives have a warrantee that bypasses the ordinary and fast-forwards through tragedy. Happiness has become our God-given right: because everything we are taught and told suggests there’s something wrong with our lives or us if we aren’t happy.
That’s a lot of pressure for one emotion to bear.
So when our lives, or we, aren’t happy we get to wonder how to make it so. Some follow the path of external wealth and objects to symbolise an internal contentment. Some attend the conferences, and read the self-help guides and dedicate their thoughts towards happier ideas. Some take pills, or substances that quell and disguise the feelings. Others spiral into a mire of dark thoughts that worry about the worthlessness of life and their own existence. We do a lot to avoid this dreaded heaviness of suffering or unhappiness. We can make ourselves quite unhappy avoiding unhappiness.
What might happen if we just welcomed unhappiness in – let it sit beside us like some sort of misplaced Alzheimer-ed person. Let it speak to us in its discontented ramblings and didn’t try to change it or put a different sense on it – just let it be what it needed to be. Wanting endless happiness is like ordering the same meal every day. No matter how much a burrito bowl brings joy, it bores on the 40th eating. If emotions are set out like a grand buffet in the human psyche, you don’t want to just feast at the dessert station – you’d miss out on everything else.
Difficulties and crises are a necessary and crucial part of personal evolution. Hop-scotching over the sad bits doesn’t work. Buddhists know that all life is suffering and yet we must joyfully participate in the sorrows of life. There’s a full symphony of feelings and each of them will resonate loudly at times and then fade repeatedly in the song of our lives. I like to think sadness portends the happiness that is forming on the horizon. As Robert Harling’s character, Truvey Jones, says in Steel Magnolias, “laugher through tears is my favourite emotion.”
As we mature, our mind transforms into its next stage of development. The magical world of infants with fantastic imagined creatures and mystical moments creeps away as children, perhaps sadly, discover that others inhabit their world and also require attention. And those other people can be mean to you and call you names and hurt your feelings and your body and your mind. Your childish ways have to be outgrown.
Each phase of change and growth brings with it a series of conflicts that need resolution. When our world becomes up-turned and we lose our markers that gave life meaning we have the choice to re-establish meaning. We need to map our new meaning of who we are and what our life is all about onto new people, new knowledge and new awareness. We need to grow up.
Interestingly, transformations only really happen through great suffering or a mental illumination that is spookily close to a religious experience or a psychotic episode. Avoiding transformation means avoiding the warring emotions that stimulate our bodies and minds. Staying fixed on being happy all the time means becoming a Peter Pan in Neverland. You can’t grow up if you wont face into all the emotions of life.
Recently a friend sent me the algorithm for happiness. Of course there’s a formula for a commodity like happiness has become. The good people of Google have once again come to our aid and taught us that happiness happens to us when our experiences meet or beat our expectations. Say for example I have a birthday approaching and expect my loved one to throw me a surprise party with all the people I love getting together to share a beautiful meal with me. If, on the day of my birthday I receive a sincere and loving kiss and a warm and heart-felt hug and an elegantly wrapped gift from my partner my expectations will not be met. I will be unhappy regardless of the gift, the hug and the kiss.
So should we have low or no expectations of life, others and ourselves? Is that the antidote to unhappiness? Just don’t expect much from life and you’ll be eternally happy. That sounds a lot like a self-inflicted lobotomy.
The “pursuit of happiness” imagined by John Locke and Jefferson was not merely the chase for pleasure, property, or self-interest (although these are not excluded). It is also the freedom to explore your pursuit – to follow your path towards what makes you whole and might make you happy. That freedom to choose how you show up in the world has all the burden and pleasure of responsibility.
It’s not the happiness that’s important; it’s the pursuit that matters. I think the declaration tells us to chase life with all our heart. Explore. Discover. Contemplate. Examine. Imagine. Above all chase the possibilities and no matter what feelings and thoughts come up and sit down beside you, just let them be with you. They might not look and sound like happiness, but they could be a clue for what will make you happy in the future. Our unhappiness might be calling us to a new pursuit that could be the source of a joy our minds have yet been able to imagine. Unhappiness might be the landing lights that lead toward happiness. It might just be worth pursuing.