Ask a hundred people what their goal is in life and fifty will say it’s to be happy while only a fraction of those will be successful. Perhaps this is because happiness is an outcome of living a balanced life and the idea that it can be a goal is better suited to fairy tales.
“We must go down to the very foundations of life. For any merely superficial ordering of life that leaves its deepest needs unsatisfied is as ineffectual as if no attempt at order had ever been made.”
~ I Ching, circa 2500 BC
Is happiness over-hyped to sell?
There’s always a new study claiming our ratings on the various scales of happiness are going up, down or sideways. Closely followed by a troupe of academics claiming they’ve cracked the code or by more business-minded folks making money selling recipes for how to get more of it.
In some ways happiness resembles healthiness. Final states to pursue to the point of obsession, with goal posts that never seem to stand still. Both sound compelling yet they remain nebulous in shape and elusive in form. You’re never quite sure what either is and every time you think you might be getting close, they slip away. Or you’re disappointed to learn that what you’ve acquired doesn’t conform to the popular consensus of what your health or happiness should look like.
Perhaps the whole thing is over-hyped, made more complicated and confusing than it needs to be. The advantage of overhyping is it creates fertile breeding grounds for anyone with a strong opinion and the marketing chops to stake a claim of some sort. Happiness has become a burgeoning industry built on pontification, poor quality regurgitation of ancient wisdom, pop science, gimmicks and shameless exploitation.
The simple ideas are scoffed at for their lack of sophistication. The proposition that eating well and exercising more could be a valid path to healthiness is treated with the same contempt as the possibility that happiness could be the result of doing more of what you love and less of what you don’t. Hardly material worthy of the New York Times bestseller lists.
Happiness is multidimensional and relative
Happiness is not a state that can be neatly packaged and categorized so you can figure out what to pack for the journey to find it. Not to say there aren’t definitions and theories that attempt to do just this; there are more than any of us could ever read because its one of the most popular topics to muse about. But it’s also an individual experience. It’s whatever you perceive based on your experience with all the predispositions you bring.
Note: this last sentence was not peer-reviewed and accepted as a valid definition of happiness. Which is my point. Perhaps there isn’t one that describes your experience or the one you would like to create and you should stop looking for one. There’s a lot of noise to cut through to get to the simplicity that might be necessary to actually be happy and all the theories and postulations may not help. The fact that we in ‘The West’ have to go elsewhere to learn about happiness should provide some clues to how far we’ve strayed from the source.
Happiness is a multidimensional phenomenon. It’s not one state, there is not one way to attain it and it’s a dynamically changing experience. You may be happy one day and not the next or what once made you consistently happy may crumble in the future. Its occurrence varies on many different levels – over time or in the intensity of felt happiness for example. There are many inputs and many outputs and there isn’t a black box between these two ends of the spectrum where the transformation to happiness occurs. We are sometimes conscious actors and sometimes unconscious victims. It is a result of making good decisions but also of overcoming bad ones. I could write pages of examples to demonstrate its multidimensional nature because happiness has many stakeholders and there are many pathways in and out of it. It doesn’t lend well to reductionism.
Happiness is also easier to grasp when it’s used as a relative rather than an absolute concept. It might be easier to declare you’re happier now than you were last year because you have a better job, a more stable relationship or enough money to order what you actually want from the menu. But are you definitively happy?
Does it matter if you are?
Apparently, it does given the sheer numbers of people who keep joining the pilgrimage to discover the mystical state. Wherever it resides…in our amygdala…or in the wisdom of experts at a happiness convention…?
What is considered happiness for one person could be torture for another and even for the same person at different stages in their lives. So ‘definitively happy’ is closer to fantasy – happily ever after – than the more nuanced and messier nature of reality. This is not to say that we shouldn’t indulge in fantasy but at some point it’s important to make the distinction and to save some energy for what’s actually happening in your life right now.
You can’t control everything that happens so seek balance instead
A healthy organism in nature typically seeks and tries to maintain homeostasis, the condition of balance or equilibrium within its internal environment. This includes physiological and psychological stability as well as entomological (the ability to behave cooperatively to produce a desired result). When any of these become unstable there is an inherent tendency to restore the balance. Commonly the source of the instability is from external causes over which the organism has little or no control.
Physiologically the same tendencies apply to human beings – our bodies strive for stable body temperatures, blood pressure, and circadian rhythms and when any of these get thrown off we become less healthy. But psychologically and entomologically we get and stay out of balance all the time because we’ve found ways to short-circuit or sabotage our natural tendencies and replace them with more complicated ones that keep us stuck or suffering.
“Since time immemorial, people have attempted to cope with powerful and terrifying feelings by doing things that contradict perceptions of fear and helplessness: religious rituals, theatre, dance, music, meditation and ingesting psychoactive substances, to name a few.”
~ Peter Levine, In an Unspoken Voice.
Animals in the wild process their stress by finding ways to discharge it physically. Human beings retain their stress by finding ways to internalize it. After which we make bad decisions or go to therapy to try to understand ourselves! Clearly, I’m oversimplifying but there is some truth to this. We don’t do what’s natural and simple and we do introduce complexity and endless conjecture or rumination to make the pursuit of happiness tougher or more of a struggle than it needs to be.
The struggle is not where contentment flows the strongest. Struggle is an inevitable part of all our lives but this does not mean we have to succumb to it or tolerate it to the point where it unduly sways our overall wellbeing. There is more contentment to be found in simplicity and balance, giving back or sharing, harmony or in letting go. But these are rarely sufficient to quell the rampant appetites for solutions to the existential angst or lack of joy that many experience. Analytical minds demand something more elaborate, which they rarely find because this is not where the truth lies.
Take responsibility for the things you CAN control
Just like any other organism, you cannot control everything in your external environment, and if your happiness is pegged to your ability to do so, it’s probably built on a house of cards. Some argue that you are responsible for what happens in your life and therefore for finding your own happiness. Which is an interesting mantra until its proven wrong, which it often is.
“Happiness is possible only to a rational man, the man who desires nothing but rational goals, seeks nothing but rational values and finds his joy in nothing but rational actions.”
~ Ayn Rand
Even when we are being fully responsible, bad things happen to responsible people and bad things don’t tend to make us happy. People don’t choose to be born into disadvantage just as people born into privilege didn’t earn it. Both sh*t and luck happen. We cannot control everything in our environment through the application of rationality so how can we take responsibility for everything that happens? Including how we feel about it.
Sure you can beat yourself up for not being able to overcome setbacks and find happiness regardless, if that works for you. Perhaps something Ayn Rand would have recommended – some sort of rugged individualism – but how effective is it? Dreadful circumstances over which you have little/no control are enough of a reason to justify feeling unhappy and labeling this as irrational or self-indulgent does little to change the feelings themselves. It just adds insult to injury and sends a person deeper inside their own sense of shame.
Striving for stability and balance is a healthy and natural response to an unpredictable and often harsh external world. If you work too much and have a poor diet or don’t get enough exercise it will throw off your body’s capacity to fight stress and illnesses. Or if you neglect your own personal growth or social interaction you could weaken your psychological resilience or diminish your capacity to cooperate with others. Finding balance is something you can control.
There is no enchanted place where balance mysteriously comes together with no personal effort. It takes discipline, hard choices and sacrifices but all with a greater good in mind. You may earn less or have fewer Twitter followers but your family may like you more and you might weigh less and get up the stairs quicker. It does not make you immune to suffering but it does improve your ability to cope when it comes knocking. And balance spreads your odds for happiness across more prospects. Think of it as preventative personal care mixed with a diversified strategy to pursue happiness.
Pause & take stock
If happiness is something you’re chasing or struggling to find, perhaps you would benefit from pausing for a moment to gain some perspective first. Rather than pursue the elusive white rabbit of happiness do something tangible instead. Look at your life holistically and take an inventory of the things that leave you feeling miserable or wanting and make a decision to do something about them. Happiness is more likely if you systematically identify and deal with the saboteurs or address the chasms of neglect that foster joylessness. Highlight the things that you can control or address quickly and attend to those first.
Prove to yourself that movement is possible and that you’re the best person to create it. Happiness correlates well with a sense of accomplishment. Whether this is in the form of overcoming adversity, achieving goals or finally making changes to toxic situations. They all provide positive affirmations of your capability and potential and release energy that can be used to keep going or tackle bigger challenges. The oxytocin of possibility.
Ceaselessly striving without first knowing why, what and how is a waste of energy. It’s directed at everything and nothing and success rely more on luck than strategy. A crapshoot. Likewise, trying to shoehorn your situation into some externally contrived conception of happiness pushes the locus of control to the outside where you have less control. You have to work backward from idealism which is more difficult than starting from reality and working forwards. Of course, idealism is vital otherwise what can we strive for but when the striving dominates the doing, it is just dreaming.
I help people create an extraordinary life for themselves by giving back in scalable ways. If you need help finding balance in your life, contact me.