I started wondering if happiness is really attainable or are we all just chasing an illusion we’ve been made to believe is really out there? Because that’s what everyone wants, right? Everyone wants to be happy but no one really knows how to be happy. We have list after list, article after article written about how to achieve happiness. Yet, whenever we ask people what they want in life they usually reply “happiness” like it’s a part of their life they haven’t yet achieved.
We are told happiness isn’t something that you experience long-term, it’s something you have to work at and continue working at your whole life. It fluctuates between emotions, feelings, circumstances and situations. Happiness is completely inconsistent and our mood can change from being on top of the world to being completely underneath it in a matter of seconds.
The concept of happiness is misleading in the way that we think if we just cross a few things off on the self-care list we found on Google that we could truly switch our life around and discover happiness, but that’s simply not true. The view of happiness we’ve been handed by our society is one of illusion. It’s the great happiness illusion that we unmindfully buy into. To chase happiness is to chase a rainbow. The more you go after it, the ever elusive it becomes.
To set an expectation of happiness can mean putting expectations on other people or relationships to make you happy, certain job conditions, etc. All that is a set up for disappointment. I’m not saying you shouldn’t foster conditions that can help create happiness. If you can identify those and work on them. Great. But be careful of having happiness as an expectation. Let’s face it, shit happens, all kinds of it. So, the practice is about being mindful of whatever arises, and not to react with clinging or aversion.
The lifelong fascination with what makes people tick, have led me most reluctantly to the judgement that while we may savour happiness episodically, it will invariably be disrupted by unwelcome negative feelings. Still, most of humankind will continue to harbour the expectation of living happily and remain oblivious that this wishful fantasy is an unconscious way of warding off the threat of psychic pain. Namely that clinging to the fiction of being able to avoid suffering and enjoying a continuing state of pleasure which is equivalent to self-deception.
The first way to understand why happiness is an unachievable illusion is by looking at our basic needs. We have 5 levels of needs. These come in the form of Physiological, Safety, Love/Belonging, Esteem, Self-actualization. Yes, the majority of people can get through the first 2 levels of the pyramid, but what about the next 3? All of these fall to the constant turmoil that is the mind. The constant problems that we face on a daily basis.
However even though we know that we can not always be at the top of this pyramid, we strive to be. This is a human trait that is usually unavoidable. What this means is, it makes anyone who is average want and desire things that are unreachable and unneeded. This itself is a short-circuit of our competitive instincts. Even if one aspect of your life is perfect, there will always be unavoidable problems that occur. To keep one aspect of your life a certain way, problems must be faced.
The moment we come into this world, we usually cry. Why is that? Because the very act of coming into existence itself is a struggle. The struggle is so woven into the fabric of biological living that it must be accounted and anticipated for. It should be accepted rather than completed avoided.
Real happiness stems from the laughing in the face of adversity. It also means not seeking temporary highs like expensive cars, and the like. The sad news about happiness is human beings did not evolve to be endlessly happy. If we had, we would be. We’re just not going to be happy when someone we care for dies. We aren’t happy when we see a friend in distress, when we go broke, or get miserably sick. We didn’t evolve to be happy but to pursue happiness. Feeling happy is an arousal state and evolved as part of our reward system.
It gets triggered when we perceive something that’s life-enhancing. We feel happy at the sight of a newborn baby, during a meal with friends, or at the sight of our lover. You can be happy that you’ve lost some weight or won the lottery. But the feeling of being happy doesn’t last, because it’s not supposed to.
All of our behavior is essentially goal oriented, in the perpetual pursuit of happiness. The anticipation of being happy is part of our core motivational system, part of the carrot and the stick. If we were happy all the time, our motivation would vanish. Psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert wrote:
“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
Unlike animals, humans spend a lot of time thinking about what isn’t going on around them: contemplating events that happened in the past, might happen in the future, or may never happen at all. Indeed, mind-wandering appears to be the human brain’s default mode of operation. Killingsworth says:
“Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness. In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.”
Many philosophical and religious traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the moment, and practitioners are trained to resist mind wandering and to ‘be here now’. These traditions suggest that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. New research suggests that these traditions are right. The researchers estimated that only 4.6 percent of a person’s happiness in a given moment was attributable to the specific activity he or she was doing, whereas a person’s mind-wandering status accounted for about 10.8 percent of his or her happiness.
Unfortunately, in our relentless pursuit of happiness, this fundamental condition is often overlooked. Perhaps fundamental well-being depends on the perception and appreciation of all of our feelings, including fleeting and essential happiness.
I going to use my favorite phrase since it seems to fit it. Stop and Think. I know. Sounds simple right? This means putting aside time to figure out what matters and what doesn’t. With enough time of self-reflection, you will see what flows and does not. The time it takes will vary from person to person.
So is happiness unachievable? Yes. How do we achieve it?
By measuring your psychological well-being and happiness. I recently read an article from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, which studies positive psychology. Psychologist Aimie M. Gordon makes some very simple but useful recommendations.
The studies done indicate that we often get more pleasure and happiness from our memories than most other things. The kinds of memories are usually very ordinary, not necessarily the momentous occasions. She suggests the following:
1) Take a photo a day — Try to make it a ritual, so you’ll do it. At the end of a year, make a yearbook.
2) Capture context — Don’t try to improve on reality or whitewash it, just put it down the way it happened. It will later be interesting to you the way it really was.
3) Record an average day. You can write a “day in the life” post or journal.
4) Reconstruct yesterday — Take the time one morning to reconstruct everything you did the previous day in brief episodes. (went to work, ate lunch, etc.) then answer questions about each episode (what were you doing, who were you with, how did it feel).
5) A more manageable journal — Journaling in all its forms can be a great way to work through personal and professional issues and reflect on your current life and future goals, but it’s often too time-consuming. If you try and think about a few things that you feel were interesting from your past and then write about them, it will help to narrow down the choices.
I think these are good and easy to follow suggestions and can be helpful in creating more happiness for yourself. I would add one more thing. Keep a pad and pen next to your bed. At least once a week (more often if you can) write down whatever you can remember of your dreams as soon as you wake up. After you gather 7 or 8 or these, sit down and try to see if you find any patterns. This can help you tell what’s bothering you and also what you are seeking. It can relieve anxiety and help you feel more hopeful and thus happier.