Society has come up with a generally accepted recipe for happiness. The formula includes having money (the more the better), beauty, fame, popular kids who go to college (the more prestigious the better), nice places to go to, fun things to do, recognition, things to show off. The list is endless.
And because the list is endless, happiness is a moving target that keeps us busy, always busy. No matter how much money, degrees, assistants or gadgets people have, everyone’s favorite answer to “How you been?” seems to be “Oh, so busy,” doesn’t it? And “busy” is never uttered in a tone of voice that says “happy”.
We devote our precious lifetimes to chasing something that will always elude us, yet don’t spend enough time reflecting on the big picture, the fact that we humans are complex creatures and our physical needs are much easier to meet than our spiritual ones.
Our spirits crave far more than happiness. We long for meaning, purpose and coherence. Pursuing happiness will not fulfill this longing. Following are a few reasons why it’s important to frame happiness in light of the human need for purpose.
1. The pursuit of happiness is limiting.
I’ve come to regard the common parental remark “I just want my child to be happy” as meaningless. As a parent myself, I used to say it too.
But then our kids begin to deviate (and they always deviate) from the path we expected them to follow and we throw the conviction out the window. Whether they deviate out of choice (because they want to be sculptors, say) or out of necessity (like when they have special needs), we find ourselves doing everything possible to get them to course correct.
Not only do we try hard to limit our children’s lives to conform to the fixed recipe for happiness, we do this to ourselves as well.
Because the happiness destination is fixed in our minds, we don’t sufficiently ponder how we should react to what actually happens to us — a lot of which is beyond our control — or on ideals that are independent of achievement.
“The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts,” notes Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius in Meditations.
Are your thoughts driven by a pursuit of a happiness formula that’s largely beyond your control? If so, you will be disappointed.
2. Pursuing our individual happiness can lead to selfishness.
As we overfocus on accumulating achievements, we often sacrifice our values — that is, if we’ve actually taken the time to pinpoint them.
We tend to become self-centered and selfish.
Selfishness is the antithesis of happiness. As the Dalai Lama said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
How can we prioritize compassion, love and service when we’re consumed with the pursuit of a specific happiness formula?
Profound happiness and love have a price. In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, the fox explains to the prince that, when you “tame” someone you “discover what it costs to be happy.”
In the book’s context, to “tame” means to form bonds of love with others. Such bonds, the fox explains, bring joy and happiness but also pain and sorrow. That’s the price of happiness, as anyone who ever loved someone that betrayed them or died surely knows.
3. A focus on happiness makes for a shallow life.
Focusing on happiness prevents us from finding — or at least from seriously seeking — some meaning or truth in our complex human existence and in human society.
Says John (aka the Savage) in Aldous Huxley’s 1932 masterpiece Brave New World, “I’d rather be unhappy than have the sort of false, lying happiness you were having here.” In Huxley’s dystopian world, all citizens were made artificially and superficially happy through, among other things, conditioning, drugs and entertainment.
John understands that unhappiness is just as important as happiness. In fact, you can’t have one without the other. “I am claiming the right to be unhappy,” he asserts.
We can also be manipulated into happiness and complacency, “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one… Better yet, give him none,” says fire chief Beatty to disillusioned firefighter (and protagonist) Montag in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, another classic dystopian novel.
In Bradbury’s novel, control of knowledge prevents people from asking themselves questions while the mass media shortens their attention span and lulls them into a shallow sense of happiness.
The search for knowledge and truth, however painful it may be, should never be censured in the name of happiness. Humans have greater emotional potential than such shallow happiness.
It’s not that simple, is it, this journey of life. And it gets more complicated as we age and begin to constantly measure ourselves against others.
Anything measurable won’t bring lasting happiness. Ideals and the search for truth and meaning, on the other hand, are independent of outcome or achievement. The world would be a better place, and we’d likely be happier, if we spent more time thinking about and pursuing those.