Is the Pursuit of Happiness All It's Cracked Up To Be?
(It May Not Be For Many People.)
Heading toward the East Coast on a breezy and fragrant morning in May, I was ready for my long-awaited spring sail on the Chesapeake. I was driving across the Appalachian Mountains somewhere in West Virginia and found myself pondering a question I’d received only a few days earlier instead of my upcoming adventure. It was a question about happiness, or more specifically the lack thereof in someone’s life. While many questions I receive are comparatively simple to answer, happiness is different because of the ever-present entanglements between what we believe it to be and the endless contradictory messages we encounter in day-to-day life and living that challenge those understandings. Our perceptions about happiness are shaped and challenged by what we believe it to be and how our life experiences cause those existing beliefs to be mistrusted. Happiness is indeed a fickle and dangerously malleable thing that is all too often the cooperative victim of our own manipulation and uncertainty.
Before we jump into the pit of snakes we know as happiness, it helps to understand it a bit better. Happiness is an emotion - an instinctive emotional response to our environment or situation. Think of emotions as internal signaling mechanisms triggered by exposure to something in our world. Anger, fear, consternation, joy, and happiness are emotions. Emotions ebb and flow; they come and go as environments change - a brilliant human design feature. However, it’s important to remember that emotions aren’t designed to be ever-present and are not things we can or should alter. This is not to say there is anything wrong or unhealthy about using happiness to guide to a better place in life. In fact, that’s how most of us design our life experiences.
If you were to per into the inner core of happiness, you would find a double-edged sword that must be addressed with prudence. As it turns out, happiness can both improve or destroy life. Here is where understanding more about happiness becomes important.
Learning more about happiness can be challenging. Ask Dr. Google and you’ll discover billions of pages telling you about happiness, but the truth is that happiness is very different to each of us. As with all things human, intellectuals have sliced and diced happiness into manageable subtypes in efforts to understand it better. Hedonic and eudaimonic forms are the two most common forms of happiness you are likely to encounter, but there are countless others also.
Aristotle began the party by considering happiness as a vulgar life pursuit of sorts. He believed not all pursuits that engender happiness also create wellness; ergo not all of our desires are worthy of the chase, so to speak. He also believed true happiness was the product of living a virtuous life, whatever that is. As you might expect, Aristotle’s opinions were simply the start of many to follow. However, most permutations of the eudaimonic concept of happiness embrace the notion of it occurring when everything in one’s world is largely “perfect.” Realistic? Durable? Possible? Not really beyond occasional albeit fleeting feelings that the stars in our world are aligned perfectly – which is rare for most of us. I tend to think of eudaimonic happiness as largely transient, episodic, and unrealistic.
Hedonic happiness is something quite different from its eudaimonic counterpart. A common school of thought is that hedonic happiness arises from the attainment of pleasure and avoidance of pain. Think hedonism. Hedonic happiness is interesting because many scientists believe that it’s typically experienced most intensely among those with greater amounts of persistence, tenacity, and overwhelmingly positive emotions that shape their senses of wellbeing.
To understand hedonic happiness better, let’s explore a common recreational activity – hiking. You are setting out to hike to the top of a nearby mountain. It’s a moderate trek with an increase in elevation of about 3000 feet in about 10 miles. You are prepared and excited about reaching the summit but realize you are likely to encounter many obstacles ranging from fallen trees and washed-out ravines to bears, mountain lions, and venomous snakes along the way. While some see this as a set of challenges to be conquered others see the risks of such pursuits outweighing the rewards. For those who embrace the challenges and succeed, victory is indeed sweet – for a while at least. As for those deciding the effort isn’t worth the price of admission, they certainly will not feel the intense pleasure of those who make the trek successfully but will feel happier for their decisions not to undertake such a dangerous adventure - for a while also.
A simplistic way of understanding hedonic happiness is seeing it as a joy versus the cost-for-that-joy sort of thing. In other words, if the pleasure you receive from an activity is less than the costs of your effort or failure, it’s probably not worth pursuing. If you love the idea of being a physician but later discover physicians endure terrible hours and aren’t paid as well as they should be because of changing financial models, the pursuit of medicine may not be worth your effort and may indeed lead you to a life of depression and misery. Neither should you be surprised to learn physicians have one of the highest suicide rates in America today.
As you can see, happiness is a complex concept that can be difficult to understand. But simply knowing that happiness has significant potential for both reward and harm is a great place to start. Regardless of the flavor of happiness, it’s essential to remember all happiness is an emotion. Our greatest problem with problem with happiness is that most of us leverage or attempt to shape it incorrectly, recklessly, or sometimes even dangerously.
Happiness is wonderful when you experience it, but as with all emotions, it’s not designed to be a constant in life anymore than anger or fear are. Happiness can be dangerous when it becomes elusive or unattainable. The absence of happiness often triggers hopelessness, the key building block of depression and its deadly consequences. The absence of happiness is often driven by unrealistic expectations, the feeling of helplessness or hopelessness, poor decision-making, problem-solving, and often inadequate understandings about what happiness really is. Fortunately, each is correctable.
Perhaps the greatest problem associated with happiness is our ideas about what it is, should be, and what produces it. Advertisers leverage this internal conflict as they set out to reshape our understandings of what happiness “should” be – and how their products can help us achieve it easily. Have you ever seen a ballerina on heroin drinking Pepsi or a quadriplegic child in a wheelchair wearing Nike shoes? Probably not. The reason is advertisers understand that we associate happiness with culturally defined aspirations of success along with the importance and value societies place on looking, feeling, and the illusion of perfection in an unadulterated world (hedonic happiness). The same notions are encountered when you explore social media accounts including those of the Kardashians or whoever is the flavor of the day. You are not seeing realistic life, but a carefully curated version of someone’s life that you will likely compare to your own ostensibly boring and meaningless life in comparison. The result of both of these examples is often confusion about what happiness truly looks like – and your ability to realistically achieve it to any meaningful degree. For all too many, unrealistic expectations result in anxiety, fear, depression, and all too often, suicide - now the second leading cause of death among 10–24-year-olds. As you can see, happiness is a double-edged sword with innate dangers associated with not understanding either it and yourself adequately.
So, is happiness something we should pursue? In my opinion – yes and no. It’s complicated. We should embrace and savor happiness when we encounter it for what it is – and appreciate its uniqueness while it lasts. However, realistic understandings of what happiness really is and its designed purpose in everyday life is essential to not having life’s experience destroyed by unrealistic and inappropriate pursuits of it.
So then why keep happiness around? After all, we don’t seek anger, anxiety, or depression and when we have it, and it doesn’t last that long. What makes happiness different or special? From a psychological perspective, happiness simply makes us feel good – and there is great health and value in that. From a clinical perspective, happiness triggers the release of hormones and other substances that make us feel good and also resets our brains, minds, and bodies. Endorphins (also called our “happiness hormones”) create feelings of enchantment. Dopamine triggers a satisfaction response. Oxytocin helps us build human relationships and develop bonds with other humans. Happiness also short-circuits our releases of cortisol – the death hormone that drives stress. In short, happiness is an emotion associated with intense and meaningful pleasure we want and need in our increasingly stressful lives today. It’s understandable why so many of us pursue happiness wherever we can find it – and the human animal benefits from happiness in healthy ways.
Embrace happiness as a sign that your brain is happy thanks because your ideal life is more aligned with your real life. When this happens, your brain is less stressed - and brains love that! Try to understand what drives your happiness better when you experience it. What causes it? What activities and more specifically aspects of those activities result in feelings of happiness and joy? Where were you at? What were you thinking at the time? The answer to each question provides important clues to who you truly are and helps you understand what’s most important to you and your life. Listen to your body. It knows you better than either advertisers or the Kardashians do.
Happiness is an emotion that ebbs and flows naturally as your real life becomes more closely aligned with your ideal life. This provides essential clues to building a life you love as well as who you are and where you find joy. The more often this alignment occurs and the more you understand what drives your experience, the more your senses of life meaning, authenticity, and purposefulness will bloom and grow – and these are what creates a special yet elusive state of existence indeed worthy of your time and effort: contentment.
So, there you have it: the most important emotional pursuit in life is contentment – and not happiness. Contentment comes to life when you are satisfied with what you have and where you are – and is something we will explore in upcoming explorations.
Here’s to your happiness – and healthy understandings of it!