To Quit the Pursuit – Forget “Just Be Happy,” Do Better

Happiness has always been a strange matter, a fickle promise and a floating state – and one sometimes, suddenly, realized to have been there all along. Now, it may be even stranger than ever before:

Within the most comfortable of circumstances much of humanity has ever experienced, dissatisfaction is bred. In the midst of great opportunities to do great things, we let ourselves be enchanted by superficial pleasures of consumption and spectacle. With lots of chances and challenges to make good on, we let ourselves be driven to just keep up a smiling façade, wish for the best, and beat ourselves up when the universe doesn’t dish it as we wish it.

We pursue happiness, we try hard to “think positively,” and we forget to live better. In this regard, it’s time to stop chasing happiness. It’s a mirage distracting from the very better we seek and could create.

Even if it’s not just a matter of how positively we think, attitude does matter.

If you consider time spent with your boyfriend/girlfriend / partner / children a distraction from your work, for example, you may want to re-assess your priorities. Even if work has to come first, there’d hopefully be some understanding and even support if you really communicated that need. On the other hand, trying to explain may show that it’s really not more important than keeping the ties of family and friendships strong.

Just trying to think positively and smile, even though the demands in a situation are absurd, however, is crazy. There has to be enough optimism and hope to go on, do and risk something, work under the assumption that hard work has a good chance of paying off (whether in the form of a good relationship, knowledge, money, satisfaction…), whereas passivity will only lead to more of the same, and then worse. There is also, however, a need for enough pessimism to assess situations, and their relevant limits, risks and opportunities, as realistically as it can get.

Unhappiness/dissatisfaction, too, are necessary. They can be a good motivation for going on – but the “I was doing good, but I thought I should be happier” that starts out Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project” is just odd. For her, and for us who can learn from her, it seems to have ended rather well: the book got written and sold well, she found something positive to do … and there it is already, the doing.

This is important because the foundation of happiness is not a constant state of “feeling happy,” nor  a constant questioning of whether you are happy now (let alone happy enough), but a decision to do things that are worthwhile. It probably does not even matter whether these things are done because they are your passion, a purpose in life, the things that make happy, or even just what you are convinced is expected of you and necessary. The focus has to shift there, to the doing, though, not remain on the question of happiness itself all the time.

“Nothing makes people more neurotic than the expectation that they should be enjoying themselves.”
The Economist: Sex and advertising – Retail Therapy

In fact, most of the things that (really) make happy, pleasurable though their doing may become once you really get into it, do not directly make happy. Rather the opposite: they are quite hard, requiring a lot of physical and, even more often, mental effort.

Starting out with them, also and especially to get happier, can make you feel very good. (Just think of the feeling you get from thinking “This year, I’m going to keep all those New Year’s resolutions and change my life!“) Finding a sense of accomplishment in finishing a part of them also gives great satisfaction. By and large, though, doing them, and doing them over and over again, is not happy, but hard.

Happiness. A good life. Maybe the problem is that they all sound like states. So, we seek them in an attitude, and especially in products and consumption. Even when it comes to experiences, all too many seek pleasure and enjoyment in “the best,” hand-delivered, and with a lot of pomp and excitement.

We have come to see the good life itself as the pursuit of happiness – and this view may be the problem. The pursuit of happiness has become the rat race trying to come out ahead by running in ever the same cycles of work and spend, of the obviously hard work at a J.O.B. (“just over broke”) and the apparently pleasurable fun of free time.

It is time to quit this pursuit and realize that happiness is a shy beast that cannot be chased down, but only carefully invited into a life. Time to step off the plastic hamster wheel of the shiny “happy life” and move along the muddy path of an intentional life that leads to better.

The things that make happy are not so much parts of a 12-step program with a guarantee of success as they are elements of a life well-lived, with pleasure, and even more so with the purpose and skillfulness without which a life could not be good because it would be empty. Full of stuff, and fun, and things-to-do, perhaps, but not of meaningful relationships, of the experience of really being alive and at home in this world, of living with a purpose.

There is no happiness. There is doing, feeling – and thinking – good, and getting to better.

There is no such thing as life. There is living. And for us humans, making sense and creating better…

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