The Happiness Mystique - How The Search For Happiness Can Make Us Miserable

“Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.” Albert Schweitzer

“The moments of happiness we enjoy take us by surprise. It’s not that we seize them, but
that they seize us.” Ashley Montigue

“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of, you will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” Albert Camus

Ellen was weeping in my office. She had a stylish and imperious air about her. She described her life as miserable and inadequate. Her husband she complained didn’t make enough money. I knew he was a very successful stock broker but it was sorely lacking in her mind. I asked her what she thought would make her happy. Silly me. She snapped back immediately that sixty thousand dollars right then she would make her happy. I was taken aback in a certain way because we don’t necessarily expect that money will make anyone happy but there it was. So many people believe that wealth and things will bring happiness into their lives. Certainly time has proven her wrong. Even though she has a great deal of money these days she is still just as unhappy.

Blasting over the airwaves, Facebook, television and film is a constant refrain about the pursuit of happiness. We are in search of the Holy Grail called being happy. Socrates believed that only people with self-knowledge could find true happiness. According to Socrates: – “Happiness flows not from physical or external conditions, such as bodily pleasures or wealth and power, but from living a life that’s right for your soul, your deepest good.” It would seem that the quest for happiness can be a source of unhappiness. People blame themselves for their inability to be happy. In that sense the idea of happiness seems a bit flawed. How can we be happy when we are missing an internal life? Ultimately happiness in an inside job. But how is that accomplished? Inside how, what, who and when? It would also seem to nix relationships altogether. Finding the right person can make us happy for a time but sooner or later we run into life and ourselves and whalla, we are back in the soup.

The song goes “Don’t worry, be happy.” Is that like “Be spontaneous?” One cannot be something or it takes the thing itself away. To be anything, nice, happy, cool, great, smart or special is prescriptive and therefor fake. To try to be happy is an exercise in futility. Finding happiness is probably more akin to training our focus on something outside of ourselves that is fun, exciting or creative. The secret to happiness then lies out in the world. Although we do need to clear away our pain and misery first before we can be happy.

So it seems that happiness is the byproduct or the exhaust from some activity or condition but then it quickly fades. Can we find lasting happiness? I think not. How can we be totally happy when the world is upside down and so many people and animals are suffering? Does happiness require that we tune out the rest of the world?

Maybe it’s not happiness at all that we seek but contentment. Now there’s a reasonable goal. The illusive thing called happiness may be an illusion or a brief moment but we can be content. We can find an inner sense of peace, acceptance, compassion and respect. We can enjoy the simple things, a flower in bloom, a sunset, a hug from someone we love. These things create contentment. The expectation that we can reach this state while working, raising a family, trying to get enough sleep, and physical challenges can create a sense that we have failed at being happy. Everyone else manages to be happy why not us? That concept alone can make us miserable.

What then is a realistic expectation in this world of illusion and fantasy? It’s realistic to assume that there will be problems and that life is difficult but that’s not our fault. We can’t blame ourselves for the difficulty of life. We can learn how to not be self-critical, develop loving relationships and find meaningful work. We can build interests and talents, a good sense of humor, meditate, adopt a positive attitude and most of all have some fun. These are things we can succeed at. Lasting happiness not so much.

Most of my research revealed happiness was related to gratitude, mindfulness, a positive attitude, finding love and being active. What else is new? Truth is no one really knows for sure what makes us happy. Certainly trying to find it can be disappointing or exhilarating. Maybe the secret is to be still and it might just sneak up on us.

First published in the Huffington post UK

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