Of Course You’re Meant To Be Happy.
Lately, it seems fashionable to suggest that pursuing happiness is a waste of time. Buddhist principles like non-attachment and stoic ideals like equanimity are used to support the claim that wishing for happiness can only lead to suffering and the erosion of our good character.
Instead, we should focus on our responsibilities. We should think about how to be valuable members of society and use our talents to help others. Happiness is simply as a frivolous, self-centred, illusory goal, that is beneath our dignity as responsible, rational human beings.
Don’t get me wrong. Helping others, fulfilling our responsibilities, contributing to society, these are all excellent, worthwhile goals. We should be focusing on them. But they’re worthwhile because they’re ways of pursuing happiness for ourselves whilst at the same time increasing the levels of happiness around us. To interpret Stoic or Buddhist philosophies as a rejection of happiness is to miss the value of the teaching.
Let’s get something straight; happiness is the central goal of all of our lives. Every single thing any of us ever does is done because we believe it will make us happy. Everything from charity work to drug abuse to meditation to killing oneself is motivated by the desire to move from the state we’re currently in, to a happier one.
As the previous sentence suggests though, happiness is extremely flexible in its expression. Happiness can be a sense of satisfaction achieved by being recognised for an achievement. It can be humiliating somebody we disagree with (a joy made all the more delicious if somebody is there to witness it). It can be making somebody we care about smile. Then, there are things that are more internal. This might be an end to physical pain, a belief system about the world and our place within it that comforts us, the absence of fear.
Because of the variety of ways each of us defines happiness, and the complex interplay between the different types of happiness we want, the pursuit of happiness looks very different for different people. Some people throw themselves into life recklessly, making the most out of every experience. Some prioritise familiarity and safety, satisfying themselves with a life which promises few unpleasant surprises. These are both descriptions of happiness, just based on different priorities.
But then some, in an attempt to avoid unhappiness completely, try to numb themselves to it. But in doing so, they numb themselves to happiness as well. I’m reminded of the words of the renowned stoic philosopher Epictetus:
With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most insignificant things. If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.
Imagine trying to live your life this way. Imagine constantly reminding yourself of the banality or mortality of the things you love so that you won’t be unhappy when they’re gone. Framing life around the moments when you will be unhappy is like eating the best imaginable version of your favourite meal whilst reminding yourself that one day you’ll be hungry again. We can’t protect ourselves from pain by constantly bracing ourselves against it. There will inevitably be moments in our lives which hurt. The only thing we can do in the face of this fact is to enjoy the moments which don’t as deeply and fully as we can.
So what do we do in the moments when unhappiness strikes? Consider the Greek general Xenophon who upon learning that his son had died in battle simply said; “I knew that my son was mortal. This reaction might seem to suggest that he didn’t care that his son had died. After all, what kind of parent could meet the death of their child with a simple recognition of their mortality?
But ask yourself, what response would have been appropriate? Would we feel better if he’d shut himself off from the world and refused to eat until he died too? Or thrown himself from the nearest balcony? Why? Who would this response serve? Certainly not his son. Displays of sadness don’t serve any purpose other than to conform to the expectation that we should show sadness.
But just as there’s no correct way to be happy, there’s no correct way to be sad. Is it better to have a funeral which celebrates the joy and life of a loved one? Or to hold a sad, quiet affair filled with tears and misery? I don’t know, but I do know which I’d prefer people did to remember me when I’m no longer here.
We don’t have to lose ourselves in unhappiness when it arrives. In fact, learning to deal with unhappiness more evenly is a great way to be happy more often. But this isn’t the same as not wanting to be happy. Xenophon would have been happier if his son had lived, he simply didn’t fall to pieces because he didn’t.
The fact that unhappiness is inevitable, doesn’t mean that we should abandon happiness. Even if it were possible, a life without happiness is truly not worth living. Besides, happiness is inevitable too. As long as we’re not always looking around the corner for the next problem, happiness will continue to appear in our lives in its own, unpredictable way. Maybe the key to happiness is as simple as accepting that we will always live between these two extremes.