Happiness is a hopeless hack

I read somewhere that the search for “happiness” in life is a distinctively American obsession.

Well first of all, duh. It’s written in the Constitution.

And second, isn’t that kind of odd? Does no other country search for happiness? No one else on this earth wants to be happy?

This American fixation stands in stark contrast to the facts, however: We constantly rank lower than other countries in happiness levels, despite being a wealthy global power. For example, the annual World Happiness Report, a ranking of 150 countries, ranked the US as 18th — four spots down from last year. Not only are Americans not “happy”, but we’re getting sadder.

If you were to ask me to list examples of so-called American values, the first things that come to mind are the normal, awful things. Consumerism; material wealth; the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” delusion; working yourself to death. I’d always been so sure that our society’s metrics for success were trite and superficial. I never believed in the idea that high-paying job + big house + marriage + kids = happy, so I never really aspired to those things.

I do, however, aspire to be happy. I also wish the same for others, because even though happiness looks different for everyone, we can all generally agree that happiness, no matter its form, is a good thing.

As our country’s unhappy ranking shows, however, the search for happiness may not be. Why is that?

Putting aside outright hedonism, which I would argue is more a search for pleasure than happiness, we strive to be happy all the time. When we’re not happy with our lives at any given moment, we decide that something is wrong and attempt to fix it. Stressed out about something? Relax, take a break. We constantly ask ourselves if we’re truly happy. We’re obsessed with practicing mindfulness, always chasing that glowing beacon of “peace and harmony” inside of us. We assure ourselves that any struggle will end some time, and we can be happy again.

Once I got a taste of happiness, I couldn’t let go.

It was beautiful and addictive; it was like there was this pure, golden aura surrounding me wherever I went. I had all my cards in place. I had a job, and a family that supported me, and friends that loved me for who I was. I was traveling and doing things that I wanted to do. Almost every day, I would take a step back and be utterly and truly grateful. I was more than happy. For the first time in my life, I was content.

But it never lasts, right? Losing my job has put me in a long-term state of anxiety for the past two months, as I alternate between panic and despair with every job rejection email. It’s a struggle, keeping my head above water. And I keep thinking how I should have known that that happy state wouldn’t last. It’s not meant to.

That’s not the point of life. It would be dangerous for me to feel like I have to fix things soon so that I can return to being happy. That kind of thinking forces you into a narrow mindset where every life event is seen either as progress or a setback. I shouldn’t struggle to learn something from it, to become stronger — I struggle because I am already strong, and I shouldn’t need to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’ll get there when I get there, but that’s not the point.

In the wake of reimagining our pursuit of happiness, I posit this humble suggestion: The point of life is to chase experiences. Some experiences, yes, will make you happy. You could pick up a new hobby and end up enjoying it, or you could go see the aurora borealis like you always wanted to. But some experiences, like falling in love or moving far away from home, will have mixed results. They could make you miserable. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have them.

As Harry J. Stead writes in his Medium article, “The Purpose of Life Is Not Happiness”:

And so the question arises, do people truly want happiness?

Or do they want to struggle against the wind, to fight for their family, to bleed against their misfortune, to break their own heart, to bite their own lip, to put down bribery, to follow their omens, to hang on tight to their past, to move beyond the edges, to love so passionately that they lose themselves, to slay their demons and to discover new creations?

Instead of saying, “I don’t need this or that to be happy,” we should instead be saying, “I don’t need to be happy.” Because, in the grand scheme of things, there is so much more to a life well lived.

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