Happiness makes for a poor goal.
It’s not particularly well-defined. What is happiness? How much happiness is enough to be happy with – to not eventually be let down by?
The steps to achieving it are not particularly well understood. Common paths attempted to achieve happiness include religiosity, conventional success, and family living.
Religiosity and piety offer no assurance of happiness. While religious people en masse tend to present as being happier than nonreligious people, there are plenty of religious people who are not particularly happy, and plenty of nonreligious people who are.The same can be said of marriage and having children. As teenagers and twenty-somethings, how many times have each of us been admonished NOT to get married? Even by people in long-lasting, apparently relatively happy marriages. If marriage, children and a career were such sure bets at lasting happiness, the Mid-Life Crisis would not be a well-known experience.
Conventional success also offers no guarantees. Those who have risen to wealth, fame, admiration, and excellence are sometimes – frequently? – disappointed when they are not met with lasting happiness at the top of the hill. Some will be disillusioned as they struggle with questions as “This is it?”, “Was it worth it?”, “What now?”, and “If all of this hasn’t brought me happiness, can anything?”.
Sincere condolences go out to the family and friends of recent former Major League Baseball player, Ryan Freel, who unfortunately took his own life earlier this week. He was only in his thirties. He had the good fortune of becoming one of the best few hundred baseball players alive and attaining healthy doses of public recognition and wealth in the process. His experience is not nearly as uncommon as we might think. Kurt Cobain. Owen Wilson (attempted). Sylvia Plath. Hunter S. Thompson. And these are just some of the people who were so tragically unhappy and overcome with feelings of hopelessness and despair that they felt they needed to bring it all to an end. The list would get much longer if we took to listing those who were simply unsatisfied with their level of happiness. Wealth, fame, excellence and recognition offer no guarantees.
The Pursuit of Happiness – One of Nature’s Most Perverse Ironies
I believe that making happiness the object of one’s striving could, in a feat of perverse irony, actually put it further out of reach. It’s actually more broad than this. Attempting to control one’s emotions frequently only serves to put them further out of one’s control.
Emotions frequently dance to the beat of their own drum, and can be reluctant to do as they’re told. Self-defeating fear makes for self-fulfilling prophecies of failure precisely because it will not cease and desist when asked. Trying to quell negative emotions often only serves to wind them up further and add frustration to the mix. On the other hand, happiness doesn’t always peak as high or last as long we expect or hope. Attempts to cling to it – or to that which we attribute the happiness to – can actually serve to shorten it, dampen it, couple it with frustration and anxiety, and create unhealthy dependencies.
Emotions can be slippery, unpredictable and defiant. Making them the primary objects of our striving can be disappointing and frustrating, which can lead to senses of disillusionment, defeat, and depression.
Instead of Chasing the Emotion of Happiness and Fleeing Its Contrary, Pursue Wisdom and Mastery
Wisdom, in brief, is an understanding the ways of the mind, other minds and the world that, if applied, enable one to function with equanimity (i.e., calmness and composure). Mastery, in brief, is the ability to act on wisdom. Wisdom and Mastery are two sides of the same coin that feed reflexively off one another. Wisdom is the knowledge that guides Masterful action. Masterful action is that which skillfully applies and extends one’s Wisdom. (Aside: Readers familiar with Buddhism may notice a recurring implicit theme in this post – that Wisdom and Mastery often entail Letting Go. Some of the most challenging feats of Mastery involve opposing deeply felt attachments/dependencies to coveted emotional states, social positions, and possessions).
Pursuing Happiness Invites Disappointment and Frustration; Pursuing Wisdom and Mastery Invites Opportunity
The heading above might come off a bit strong, but the text-limitations inherent in headings often make nuance impractical. Having said that, though, I don’t think that I’m being too over-simplistic here. If one’s ultimate goals are to attain lasting happiness and avoid unhappiness, then what will one feel when they themselves unhappy or insufficiently happy – either in a particular moment, or at the end of a long, dedicated effort that was intended to bring happiness? How could one not be upset, disappointed and/or frustrated?
Pursuing Wisdom and Mastery is much more constructive. In the pursuit of wisdom and mastery, bouts of glumness are challenges, not disappointments or threats to the validity of one’s path. They’re opportunities to learn and grow. Why am I not feeling well? What does this emotional state tell me about my current situation, my values, my expectations, how my mind works, and so forth. They’re also opportunities for practice. Practice in dealing with the emotional state, associated thoughts and the surrounding context with increased Mastery. This practice could come in the form of disciplined thought analysis, along the lines of cognitive behavioural therapy. One could also practice mindfulness meditation, establishing a mindful presence with the aversive emotional state when it emerges. Just being with aversive emotions when the opportunities present themselves. Practicing this form of exposure therapy to unpleasant emotions one can improve one’s ability to tolerate them. As tolerance goes up, fear goes down. The ability to function with equanimity – with Mastery – rises. In The Places That Scare You, Buddhist Nun Pema Chodron encourages readers to go toward – not away from – unpleasant emotions when they arise. I have put this suggestion to practice with very satisfying results.
As it turns out, learning to accept let emotions flow as they will is a much better means of gaining Mastery over them than trying to control them. This is the other side of the perverse irony.
Chodron also encourages people to go to the physical and social places that scare you, not away from them. Be strategic about it, of course. Be thoughtful. Develop emotional, social and behavioural strategies to employ. Practice in advance where possible. And be constructively reflective after. What went well? What didn’t? How could it have been done better and what do you need to do to get your skills to where you would like to them to be?
Be a Student of Life; Not a Consumer
A Student – well, a willing student – is here to learn and to master. They don’t need to be paid or praised. The knowledge, mastery and fun intrinsic in what they are engaged in is the pay. Stumbling blocks, difficulties and effortful investment are to be expected. A Consumer, on the other hand, puts forth a certain payment and duly expects a certain product. When their investment – money, time, effort, etc. – are not followed by the expected return – quality products or services, money, recognition, enjoyment, etc. – anger, anxiety, frustration and other such emotional manifestations of having gotten the short end of the stick tend to play out.
A Process Orientation devoted to the cultivation of Wisdom and Mastery, I believe, is more constructive and more likely to produce pleasing results than a Product Orientation anchored by desired emotional, social, or physical ends.
In other words, when we replace the goal of happiness with a commitment to the cultivation of Wisdom and Mastery we give ourselves our best chance at living happily.
Happy New Year 🙂