To pursue happiness
it is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom,
and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead. This is why all the affairs of civilization are rushed, why hardly anyone enjoys what he has,
and is forever seeking more and more.
“I just want to be happy.” ….”or happier.” Frequently uttered words in my coaching and classes.
What will make you happy? And when will you be happy?
I ask these questions in my workshops. To some these are easy questions. The answers just pop into their heads. To others these are confounding questions. A confusing kaleidoscope of words and images overwhelm their minds.
The point I try to make is that “happiness”, at least the western notion of happiness, is ephemeral and insufficient. That while this goal may swirl in our little heads it is not the end we want. Making others happy, now that is an end to behold, but I digress.
The most popular and yet flawed happiness survey question is, ‘How happy are you, from 1 to 5?’
You don’t know. You never really know. Because thinking about your feelings changes everything.
As we age, we realize how much self-deception and delusion we practice about things that would make us happy. Our answers are often performative, articulating what we are expected to say. Job title, being recognized (read fame) or wealth emerge as good prospects– sources for our happiness. Evidence that our brains crosswire happiness with “success”, whatever that is.
Then empty phrases get coughed up such as, “I just want to be comfortable.” Or defensively saying, “I know it will be about more than money.” Or we say really dumb things, like “I like being busy or useful.”
Too often it all depends on relative success. Our relatives compare us to others, and we measure our happiness based on where we are on the ladder of success.
If we only wanted to be happy, it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, and that is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are. Charles de Montesquieu
We can let our little bubbles of happiness be YOLOd and FOMOd into oblivion when we look at our social media screens.
Pew’s happiness question which asks people to imagine themselves on a 10-step “ladder of life,” in which the bottom step represents the worst possible life and the top rung is the best possible life. C’mon Pew you are better than this!
I always think of Net Promoter Scores that measure all our experiences when we complete surveys about products and services—you know on a 1-10 rating. 10 being best.
1-6 are negative. 7-8 are passive. 9-10 are positive. Unless you are “best” then you are irrelevant. Sound like a familiar American cultural norm?!
The word “happy” has its olden roots in luck and good fortune and can refer to many different things. In western culture it almost always refers to a fleeting moment when something “good” happens, you do something really well or even when you recall a fond memory. But it enters your mind and body like a bullet train making a quick stop. The vibrations might make you smile and have a warm toasty feeling and then your beautiful mind flashes on what could have made it even better.
Love the old song by Michael Franks, “I don’t know why I’m so happy I’m sad.”
Perhaps a theme song for our times.
The speed from happiness to despair seems to be accelerating. The moment of pleasure and even jubilation can be sucked into the black hole of disappointment in the same instant.
It’s my birthday! —–How did I get so old?
They offered me the job —- OMG. I deceived them. I’m an imposter!
I got into the best school! —- But it wasn’t my first choice.
We got the house! —- How will we make this huge house payment?
The mirage of happiness is what makes us crazy because we’re just not fully satisfied with anything. Because the quest for more is the pursuit of the American dream. More education, more house, more car, more clothes, more vacations, more likes on Instagram.
None of this is bad or good. It just does not lead to happiness.
We have to get off the conveyor belt of individualistic satisfaction.
This is where the “ladder of success” is so flawed. And is the root of so much of our divisiveness. Any real form of life satisfaction or “happiness” is most strongly tied to relationships, helping others and to a purpose beyond oneself.
Until we realize that this moment, and then this moment and so on…. is the best moment that can ever be. A moment that will never be repeated and can never be retrieved. There is no other time but now. There is a past now and a future now. Until we fully comprehend the power of now, as Eckhardt Tolle has extolled, we will always be in a state of un-happiness.
Happiness is the fleeting sweetness of joy wrapped in a melting coat of presence with a nougat of gratitude.
The enduring flavor of gratefulness for this moment, the privilege of this moment, to fully taste it and feel it —as it dissolves, is the secret of life.
In many Asian cultures and languages happiness is a deeper and broader term and concept. It encompasses purpose, fulfillment and connection to family and friends.
It is so well established that relationships, the quality and depth of those relationships, is a much better predictor of “happiness.”
The well-known Harvard Study of Adult Development that just entered its eighth decade, is pretty conclusive– “warmth of relationships throughout life has the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction’. Happiness is love. Full stop.”
I guess we still need to be reminded of this intuitive and universal truth!
Get happy fast, go alone. Stay happier, go with others.
I’ll spare you the “life’s a journey” harangue. But there is no happiness at the end. There is a life of moments and meaningful relationships.
We have to avoid the addictive behavior of seeking moments of empty happiness that make us forget about what we really want and who we really care about.
We will know happiness if we love ourselves and others. If we ignore relative success and focus on expressing and nurturing our gift and the gifts of others. If we savor the now over the next.
This is the only moment that will make you happier. Full stop.
Thanks for reading. John