Happiness is a billion dollar industry, and yet I think many of us are further from happiness than we have ever been. Just judging by the content of the news and the amount of sheer ongoing outrage about any number of issues, as a society we don’t seem to be happier despite the money pumped into wellbeing programs, meditation or any number of other mechanisms designed to improve the quality of our lives.
So what’s going on?
The pursuit of happiness is a bit like chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow… tantalising but forever slipping through your fingers.
The big problem we have with happiness is ultimately it’s nothing more than a subjective pleasurable state.
Just this pleasurable state alone is entirely meaningless. You could bring this on with chemicals alone – lots of people choose this ultimately destructive path to feeling good. I wouldn’t recommend it.
Maybe one day we will be able to implant a chip directly into our brains to pump out happiness hormones. Or even hook ourselves up in a virtual reality machine where life is continually easy, quite wonderful and filled with peak experiences.
But the question is whether you would choose to do that? And if not, why not?
A reason for happiness
Viktor Frankl writes in many places that happens ensues when we pursue meaning. In other words, when we engage in activities that have some higher purpose than our own feelings of pleasure, when we focus on others instead of ourselves (indeed forget about ourselves) then we can experience happiness as a sort of side effect.
There’s a lot of truth in this. There’s a reason volunteering, for example, feels so good. It’s transcending our own interests in the service of someone else, some greater cause, that we are rewarded with feelings of pleasure and satisfaction.
There’s no lack of evidence that meaning in life breeds a sense of wellbeing.
What about when things are hard?
Happiness is surely more easily felt when things are going well in life. When relationships are healthy and strong. When work is available and satisfying. When we have good health and good quality of life.
Maybe that’s what we really mean when we say we want happiness. We mean we want the external situation of our lives to be explicitly and wonderfully and recognisably good. And we should yearn for that. We all should have lives of abundance and filled with revealed good and feelings of spontaneous and deep joy.
Unfortunately this utopian and messianic vision is not yet reality…and life for pretty much all of us is filled with challenge and pain. I don’t want to dwell on the difficulties faced in life…enough to say they are there …and we all sit in our private personal pain in many ways at many times.
What then for happiness? Are we supposed to medicate or meditate away the pain? Will that bring happiness? At best we will either be in denial or one step removed from life. We all engage in that kind of numbing to a greater or lesser extent. My personal favourite strategy involves way to much chocolate which is wonderful and soothing in the short term, but probably not so great in the long term.
The thing is none of these type of escape strategies really move us forward in life.
Is happiness really an attitude?
Viktor Frankl writes that even in the most dire of situations a person can always choose their attitude. In this way meaning is invited in. I’m not so sure if happiness automatically follows though.
Nevertheless, while we are conscious and aware we can indeed choose our attitude to any situation and circumstance in life. This assuredly is not easy. In fact it may be one of the hardest things we have to do, yet this capacity to choose is what sets us apart as humans.
What I’ve been wondering about lately is, as an extension of Viktor Frankl’s thinking, whether happiness altogether is a choice completely independent of the external circumstances of our lives.
Perhaps, if we peer deeply enough we can always find a meaning to be happy for? We could be happy at the opportunity to be challenged because it means the chance to grow. We could play lots of mind games in order to feel happy in any situation.
But isn’t this just playing games?
We live in a postmodern society which holds there is no external reality except for the reality we construct for ourselves. Whether or not there really is an external reality is quite irrelevant here. Because the point is that we see in life what we want to see. To a very large extent we are privileged to create our own reality. I think my limited understanding of quantum physics supports that – no doubt somebody will correct me if I’m wrong.
Either way it seems to me that real ‘reality’ is in a sense neutral. It just is. And it’s up to us to somehow complete that by making sense out of it, living in it, and interpreting it according to how we choose. We may not always exercise the choice, but I certainly believe it’s there, even if at times it feels impossible.
At the level of a game, this is something we can use for own purposes. Happiness is energising and motivating. With those good feelings on board we have a much higher chance of doing something to change the external situation. At a very simple level, someone with a more positive outlook is more likely to get a job.
So how do we actually do that?
In the past few weeks I’ve been struggling with handing in my final research project and finishing my masters in coaching psychology.
Yes this is a great achievement I’ve been working on for three and a half years, but I realised quite quickly how empty and unsettled my life felt without that large guiding direction.
I confess I have really struggled with finding my way forward out of this – to see my way forward – or find where I fit in. I don’t quite know how it happened but a sense of hopelessness kind of descended on me. Yes lots of options for the future – lots of projects and programs I could write and deliver, a website I could improve, maybe even enrol in a PhD. So while externally things could seem positive and hopeful I just couldn’t see it that way.
Until this morning.
What changed this morning was I woke up and just decided enough moping. Enough of the pity party. It was time to just get on with what needed doing regardless of how I felt.
I decided to choose to feel hope that business will pick up to fill the space study has left. I chose to feel hope that I will find the right PhD to do or book to write. I chose to feel happy despite not even feeling it. It was a feeling I kind of evoked out of the ether through a pure act of will.
I realised for the first time today that the choice for happiness is real, not something we just talk about. I know it because I chose it. I lived it.
As a result I did feel enormously more energised. I got way more done than I had been expecting, including this blog. In fact, despite having to choose to feel hope this morning, this evening it feels natural. I’m able to see a positive way forward I just couldn’t see yesterday.
Maybe this is what it really means to fake it till you make it? Either way, happiness is much more of a choice than I had ever anticipated.
Maybe, sometimes happiness is just something you have to choose.