Is happiness a realistic goal?

The self-help or the happiness industry is estimated at around $11 billion a year and growing, and so is unhappiness. Shouldn’t this be the other way round?

If only, mainly the industry has created a mirage of attainable and sustainable happiness. The gap between real life and the fantasy created is a tough one to bridge. While you believe in this dream, life conveniently ignores and doesn’t seem to share our beliefs. 

The greatest and most privileged have found this goal elusive. The thing is- our pursuit or striving for happiness makes us miserable. The more we read about it and take a cue from this money-churning industry, the more unrealistic it gets.

Humans, perhaps, are the only species thinking about past, present, and future at the same time- the present. However, it is the past and future that dictate our misery or pleasure. We relate with our past life and live anticipating the future. Technically, we live in the time gone by and imagine something that does not even exist but might.

We have evolved to mentally travel into the past, and the future. 

A Harvard study backs the human way of thoughts. It shows we constantly think about something other than the now almost 50% of our time, concluding furthermore, that the more we allow our minds to wander, the unhappier we become. No wonder we are happy in intense moments like important conversations, sex, exercise, and things we love doing.

Fourteen days of happiness

Abd al-Rahman III (891–961 AD), the Caliphate of Córdoba in the 10th century was the most powerful ruler of his time. He had a successful empire from both military and political perspectives. Not only as a powerful ruler but also remembered as a tolerant philanthropist who built many palaces and collected books. With all the military might and cultural achievements, he also had the more earthly pleasures of the world (he kept two harems). 

In short, the man had everything at the platter (yes, grapes fed by the harem ladies). You and I would gladly jump at the idea of such a life. 

Interestingly, at the fag end of his life, he decided to count the precise number of days he had felt happy. 

His conclusion below provides a valuable insight into the elusive and mythical nature of joy:

‘I have now reigned above fifty years in victory or peace; beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches, honors, power, and pleasure, have waited on my call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity. In this situation, I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot: they amount to Fourteen: – O man! place not thy confidence in this present world!

Human design

Are we designed to be happy all the time? 

The philosophy of happiness is a philosophical take on the existence and attainment of contentment. Humans, by design, are made to reproduce and survive like any other creature. Early philosophers viewed happiness as a moral goal of life or a mere chance.

I did some digging into it and found the below as support to the claim:

English= Happiness

French= Bonheur

German= Glück 

Dutch= Geluk 

Norwegian= Lykke

Though the languages are different, they belong to the Indo-European language family. Interestingly, the word for happiness in each is related to the root word ‘luck.’ 

Hap is the Old Norse and the Old English root of happiness, and it means luck or chance.

Heur, giving us bonheur, the old French means good fortune or happiness. 

German Gluck, means both happiness and chance.

Perhaps, luck or chance is essential to happiness. What this also suggests is the fact that a happy state then is a matter of chance.

A state of contentment is a false prophecy since it would lower our guard against threats to our survival. 

The thing is- how would you know it if it is there all the time. We understand it as an achievement of something elusive to us. 

Canada-based clinical psychologist Jennifer Barbera finds a problem with a view of happiness common to many.

“the pursuit of happiness relies on the idea that it equals joyfulness and excitement.” 

She says that humans aren’t designed to stay permanently excited or joyful.

Also, the fact that our evolution has focused on the development of a big frontal lobe in the brain over a natural pleasure state and ability lays out the human plan. While we have exceptional analytical and executive skills, inherent happiness is not natural to us.

Misery is our price for the pursuit of happiness

The constant pursuit is a clear indicator of a void we try to bridge. We chase the elusive and believe it is not with us now. Happiness to us is a distant thought or something off in the future. Our false belief of reaching there or grasping it someday is the biggest reason for our miseries. Our actions indirectly declare our quest for happiness, and we believe it is something to be achieved rather than felt in the present moment.

A better house, car, clothes, job, promotion, or any other milestone are all tied to happiness. Once I do this or get this, I will be happy becomes the motto of life.

Our inability to achieve or reach a desired milestone sinks us into disappointment. Our disappointment makes us distant, and we start to criticize ourselves. The feelings are real, and they bring guilt. Imagine working or aiming towards a ‘thing’ that is to bring happiness into your life. Alas, it didn’t happen, and you either couldn’t get or achieve the ‘thing.’ The instant feeling is misery and disappointment. What could have been much-awaited happiness is now gone because you thought the ‘thing’ was your key to achieve it.

Happiness, as a state of being

Aristotle asserted that happiness is not just about feeling good but about feeling “right”. He proposed that a happy life is a balanced mix of experiencing the right emotions in sync with your values and beliefs.

Plato suggested that the only truly happy are those who are moral. 

Perhaps, we can view it as a state of being and not some futuristic aspiration. 

Therefore, a happy state can only be derived from meaningful engagement with life and not from the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure. Sadness, anxiety, and misery are a part of life, and the presence of these aspects is proof that there is a happy state too.

What truly stands out is finding meaning rather than pursuing it. A pleasurable and materialistic life without meaning won’t equal happiness. When we chase for emotion, the chances of it being fizzed out or elude us are pretty bright. On the contrary, the state of being is a stable and sustainable thought.

People who are open to experiences and have a knack for exploring unconventional things and ideas lead happy life. They are less shackled with society’s norms, standards, and manuals for a living. Therefore, they find meaning and solace in their unconventional approach. 

To conclude

Trying too hard to attain what should ideally be a state is a prerequisite to misery. Social norms on what constitutes happiness make most of us miserable. The key to contentment is not to go around looking for it but to know yourself better and being audacious about what makes your life worth living. Live a meaningful life, regardless of what is imposed on you.

Also try.

Yes, Life Is One Massive Struggle, but We Make It Harder

Sources and references

Euba, R. (2019). Happy days – Psychiatry in history. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 214(6), 328-328. doi:10.1192/bjp.2019.92

Bradt, S. (2010, November 11). Wandering mind not a happy mind. Retrieved from https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/11/wandering-mind-not-a-happy-mind/

Bergink, J. (2018, March 06). Determining the world’s happiness map: from ‘mutluluk’ to ‘shiawase.’ Retrieved from http://www.forastateofhappiness.com/tag/etymology/#:~:text=%E2%80%9CIt%20is%20a%20striking%20fact,with%20the%20word%20for%20luck.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophy_of_happiness

Pic courtesy- Photo by Donald Wu on Unsplash