We should not pursue happiness

It is far from the most useful emotion, writes Lane Sainty.

Pictured: a loser. Pictured: a loser.
Pictured: a loser.

It’s official: the concept of happiness has reached celebrity status in contemporary western societies. Thousands of self-help books, counselling services, and TV hours have been devoted to chasing the ultimate emotion. At Sydney University you can take a subject called ‘The Philosophy of Happiness’, and Disney movies have been feeding us a steady stream of ‘happily ever after’ for many years.

It’s easy to see right through the ‘Tips for Happiness’ on the inside cover of a self-help book, or the Prince meets Princess stories spun to us as kids. But more importantly, happiness is now frequently regarded as a right, the default state of mind. Instead of being exceptional, happy is the new okay – something we are expected to feel when we are not feeling sad. Take the following banal exchange:

‘How are you?’

‘I’m okay.’

‘Just okay? What’s up?’

‘Okay’ is almost always interpreted as less than happy and therefore, bad. It’s clear that our promotion of happiness as the default state of mind allows for no emotional middle ground. We must identify at one end of the spectrum or the other, even though most of the time this polarising outlook is inapplicable. In other words, we are not actually as happy as we like to think we are.

Don’t get me wrong – being happy is great. I’m not here to begrudge anyone the satisfaction that stems from getting a distinction, or sleeping in, or having that first swig of Coke on a hot summer afternoon. However, I do dispute that happiness is the most valuable emotion of all, and believe our tendency to promote it as an ultimatum is highly dubious. When we put happiness on a pedestal, we not only forget that chasing it is essentially futile, but we disregard the importance of equally important emotions.

Even taking irony into account, one only has to look at the #firstworldproblems hashtag on Twitter to realise that as a general rule, humans are relatively petty. We’re easily distracted and easily annoyed, not to mention inclined towards argument and conflict. While it’s essential to appreciate happy moments as they arise, expecting a prolonged period of non-stop happiness is pretty much like waiting for Godot. Frankly, happiness is an unrealistic goal.

However, this doesn’t mean we should give up on it altogether. Doing things you enjoy with people you like is generally a fairly good idea. However, problems arise when we strive for happiness among a jumble of other emotions, and cast negative feelings like sadness, stress, or anger aside.

This is because emotions like these are just as fundamental to the formation of our character. As social researcher Hugh Mackay puts it: “Wholeness is what we ought to be striving for and part of that is sadness, disappointment, frustration, failure; all of those things which make us who we are.” This notion of wholeness promotes the view that we are a sum of our experiences, both positive and negative. Expecting a net result of happiness, on the other hand, requires bias, forgetfulness, or both.

The way things seem to be going, the concept of happiness grows in popularity relative to the declining numbers of humans who are happy. Despite having more material possessions, higher life expectancies, and more ways to communicate with our distant loved ones, we are more discontent than ever before. Rather than putting this down to #firstworldproblems, a depression diagnosis boom, or the woes of materialism, we should remember that happiness is not an accurate ‘default emotion’. Furthermore, we should acknowledge that all experiences are worth at least something, whether they were good or bad.

Albert Camus wrote: “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of.” With that in mind, enjoy happiness as it occurs, but don’t look too hard for it, as the inevitable failure to ‘find’ happiness will create more anguish than it’s worth. Don’t embark on the pursuit of happiness unless armed with a healthy dose of perspective and pragmatism.

Oh, and you can leave the self-help book behind too.

Vice Chancellor Michael Spence.

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