Should we all strive to be as happy as this Genevan donkey appears to be? ( Well, assuming my interpretation of animal signalling is right and it’s not attacking the photographer.)
I have been thinking about happiness these past few weeks. In particular, how I fail on all of the traditional and major metrics of “getting it together”, owning no home and having no marriage, children numbering the statistical average, pet dog, stable and established career and, most upsetting of all, I still haven’t learnt how to make a hummus that isn’t bland.
I am old and wise enough to know that acquiring these things will not automatically lead to happiness. And that applying a general standard to any specific case only gets you so far. I think this is generally known – I often received the advice “just do what makes you happy” when I started vocalising my doubts about continuing in law. But even that advice contains its own traps.
This post is not about the meaning of happiness. Sheesh, I have other things to do today. But I do set out certain myths and cultural messages which contribute to our unhappiness, even as they suggest they contain the answer.
Cultural messages which probably don’t help you feel happy (even as they purport to)
Our culture is obsessed with planning and doing. Want a fulfilling life? Keep busy, do things! We are impressed with the high-achievers who squeeze every productive minute out of every productive day. The problem is that very little space is left for falling apart, pivoting in a new direction or enjoying what we have achieved.
I find this most annoying (yes, precisely because I recently fell apart and pivoted in a new direction and one day don’t want to work so hard). And part of what made my recent transition from lawyer to life coach so uncomfortable was the pressure to have an identity. Because those things that I cited above in the introduction are really just institutions that hold our identities; marriage, the workforce, the economy.
So you may find it extremely uncomfortable if lose your story. Either you are thrown into a new set of circumstances – good or bad – or you simply change. Suddenly how you make sense of things, and what you consider important, shifts. Then comes the pressure to figure it all out and take action, now.
But rushing to find a new story to avoid the discomfort of being nobody nowhere can be dangerous. You will be tempted to find replacements for what you have lost or given up (think rebound relationships). At my lowest I would start searching for legal jobs, even though I had just left a perfectly good one. But you don’t need an identity to be happy (or at the very least, the lack of an identity need not add to your dissatisfaction). In fact, this state of not knowing is powerful and can be a time of great imagination and creativity. If you can struggle against it a little less.
What about money then? Aren’t we expected to have some, preferably lots? Wouldn’t this make us happy? Yes and no. We get confused. Having money gets you (legal) access to resources. And having access to any resource from a baseline of zero greatly contributes to our wellbeing. (Acquiring your first blanket will feel awesome.) Then we assume that any additional money makes us happy in the same proportion. (Acquiring ten blankets will not make you feel ten times as awesome.) Once we have enough for our basic needs and a little bit more, money tends to deliver less and less satisfaction.
What happens if we don’t earn this money? Here is where I assume the “just do what makes you happy” advice meets a limitation because if that happy lifestyle does not make us money, we fail to be “responsible”. Too bad if you just want to hang out with family all day or love writing poetry.
Political philosopher Yascha Mounk explains that the term responsibility (in political usage) used to mean a moral duty to help and support others; now it has come to suggest an obligation to be self-sufficient. The result? People who need assistance feel that they have failed in this duty, even when playing a game in which the odds are stacked against them – individual responsibility taken for a collective failing. And the rest of us, observing those who fall through the cracks, feel insecure and want to hoard even more.
To close off this unholy trinity of cultural influences that raise the blood pressure, we then have the promises of consumerism. And consumerism has come to influence our worldview. (If you have any doubts that consumerism is now rampant, check your email inbox.)
In his wonderful new book, Another Now: Dispatches from an Alternative Present, Yanis Varoufakis speaks of the most liberating of epiphanies through one of his characters; that there is more to life than indulging desires and eliminating pain. Why is this relevant? Because as consumers, we have been taught to indulge desires and eliminate pain wherever possible. All for a reasonable fee.
But wait, I hear you say, what’s the problem with that? Gen, you don’t properly appreciate the wonders of the market economy!
Well probably true, but a consumerist lifestyle certainly doesn’t promote living in accordance with your values. Values which will ask you to forgo pleasure and tolerate discomfort. Want to buy some water but care about the environment? You go thirsty instead of buying that plastic, bottled water. Forgot your reusable bag at the supermarket? You will awkwardly carry an armful of dog food tins home.
Living a meaningful life requires a long game with no guaranteed outcomes. It demands trust in something that cannot be quantified, packaged and sold; a sense that you are following your own and best path. There will be unseemly mess, murky confusion, epic failure and great gnashing of teeth. In this struggle you will feel alone. You will look imperfect, thanks to the miracle of Instagram filters. But the pay off is so worth it. And, back to the point of this post, it is happiness compatible. (And yes, please rightly point out that I have a business in helping people find their own path, but I don’t claim to have the answer and only my clients know if they’ve found it or not.)
So what we can do is be aware that these narratives are in circulation. They seemingly provide you with a script to follow to find happiness. In reality, they usually make things worse. Yet they are not instructions to follow. You can decide whether or not to adopt the belief. If you don’t, for example, buy into the belief that you must always have a plan for your life, then experiment with new thoughts that serve you better e.g. I won’t waste time planning unless I know what I want to create. I’m not saying to delude yourself; choose a thought that resonates as a truth (hint: it will feel liberating rather than imprisoning). Then find the evidence that supports that belief as a reality check.
It is not only the cultural messages that lead us astray, but there are also a number of myths and misunderstandings about happiness. I discuss two major ones below. No doubt there are more, but please kindly refer to the “I have other things to do today” comment above.
Myth 1: It is not normal to be unhappy. I am unhappy. I must be abnormal.
Reality: We have a number of emotional settings of which happiness is one.
You feel happy, but you don’t become it. We are a continuum of emotions. We are not meant to be in any one feeling state for any period of time, whether happiness or sadness. Unfortunately this is not the message we receive. Consider these questions: “are you happy?” and “do I make you happy?”. We do not tack on the qualification “in this moment”. Built into those questions is the assumption that happiness is the desirable end state that can either be achieved or caused. But at best you can only answer by giving an average reading.
As psychologist Dr Russ Harris points out in his illuminating book The Happiness Trap, believing that you’re defective if you’re not happy, and that everyone else is happy except you (the natural follow on from the first belief), creates even more unhappiness. Yep, this traps us big time.
Dr Harris explains that the normal thinking process of a healthy human being will eventually lead to psychological suffering. The mind has become increasingly skilled at predicting and avoiding danger. It will also seek to protect you from rejection by the group, by comparing you with other members of the clan. Also, to improve your chances of survival you need to “get more and get better”. Better weapons, more food, better shelter, more children. In summary, this means “that we are hardwired to suffer psychologically: to compare, evaluate, and criticize ourselves, to focus on what we’re lacking, to rapidly become dissatisfied with what we have, and to imagine all sorts of frightening scenarios, most of which will never happen.” (The Happiness Trap by Dr Russ Harris, pages 4-5).
So we are hardwired for struggle. Yet we do not look at our suffering as natural. We like to think, or most fear, that we are broken deep down and that there is no hope. In fact, we are functioning exactly as designed and, when looking at the evolutionary rationale for these functions, you can see that we are exquisitely beautiful.
That is not to say that we don’t seek help when we need it – especially for trauma and mental illness. But it might also help to know that for the vast majority we are simply having a normal response to an abnormal environment (especially with the modern lifestyle being at odds with the conditions we evolved in) and that our struggle is not a source of shame.
Of course, it is a real shame that we cannot control what we think and feel (another myth). But we can lessen the impact of our painful thinking and unpleasant feelings so that we can create the life that we want. This is a large part of what I do as a coach. And you might just find that the things that you love most in this world actually bring you a whole range of emotions. You might love your toddler beyond imagining, but also wish Peppa Pig an untimely end.
And so the reality of this myth is that believing it will just add an additional layer of pain – unless it is questioned.
Myth 2: I haven’t found happiness yet. I have to try harder. Then I will find it.
Reality: Seeking happiness will not make you happy. But it will blow up in your face.
Seeking happiness by looking to the future means you are likely to miss the present and whatever delights it contains. I have a client who wisely and recently pointed out that in seeking great happiness you miss the happiness that small things can provide. We apply a filter to our experience which is not to our benefit. In searching you develop a tunnel vision which keeps you blind in other areas. Areas which might be sweet, tender, awkward and funny. In short, enjoyable. Human.
Another consequence is that wanting to be happy means you are less willing to be unhappy. Why is this a problem? Well, as a coach, I love mind-body work because it helps us to have the full human experience. To feel what we feel. And it is a package deal. Good comes with bad. You cannot selectively numb the painful emotions because, as the American professor and researcher Brené Brown explains, that numbs the positive ones too.
Looking back, I can see that for vast tracks of time I used to inhabit a state that was either pleasantly bland or mildly anxious. Now I prefer to live more richly because I know that this is the only way to love and to serve this world as I want to. The price? I have to be willing to tolerate discomfort and pain. Better this than half loving somebody because I am already preempting the day when they will leave (either voluntarily or through death).
To be clear, I’m not saying to give up on improving your life. You have great power to change the circumstances that set up the conditions for happiness. If you hate filling out forms you might want to rethink that data entry job. Love Game of Thrones? Don’t watch the disappointing season finale. What I am saying is that rather than selecting happiness as a goal to be achieved, you look for what is beautiful right now. And you open yourself up, little by little, to the full human experience. Perhaps then happiness will find you, like a bee comes to a flower that has opened.
Let me finally finish this post (concluding comments)
Rather than focusing on happiness, I’m more interested in accessing a sense of peace in the present. Sounds a bit wishy-washy, but there you have it. If I can, this keeps me connected and open to the experience I am having. In the meantime, I try to embrace the total experience of living, which goes beyond happiness but also strengthens happiness when it is found. To mindfully set up the conditions to create the life that I want. And to know myself so I am not so easily swayed by the million messages out there that provide a script for good living. I might fail on a number of cultural metrics but that’s okay. They are just stories.