Not Happily Ever After?
There is an incredible magnetism to make the goal of a person’s life revolve around happiness. The pursuit of happiness. I think it stems from our inclination towards comfort. Who doesn’t want to be comfortable? Who doesn’t want to feel good? How cozy it sounds to find our nice little niche where we can burrow in, snug as a bug.
Happiness is something we all want to feel, and it’s easy to believe that “being happy” is the pinnacle of having achieved a good life. You sit back in your chair with a smile on your face and think “I feel good. This is what life is all about”.
The danger of pursuing happiness, and it is subtle, is that “happy” is an emotion. And the problem with basing a lifestyle around an emotion is that emotions are bound to change. Not just once or twice, but probably hundreds of times…per day. The danger of pursuing happiness is that it may turn into simply that- a pursuit.
And a fairly unfruitful one, at that. In an international 2010 survey by World Values, only 34.4% of Americans described themselves as “very happy”, earning the US the 21st spot in “happiest countries in the world”. What’s truly amazing, though, is that even the survey’s #1 Happiest Country, Mexico, only found 58.5% of participants saying they were very happy.
Depending on the data you look at, there are any number of values that could earn an individual, specific culture, or entire country the coveted title of “The Happiest”. The question that most interested me, however, was self-reported satisfaction. An international survey by Happy Attitude asked their participants if they could describe themselves as “very happy”, and then ranked them by country. This study found the US in 7th place, with 28% claiming to be very happy, but even the winning country, this time Indonesia, only had 51% of participants reporting that they were “very happy”. A different infographic informed me that 48% of Americans consider themselves very happy. Like I said, different factors will lead to different results.
But still, think about that.
Despite all the different data points, we are coming to a conclusion, time and time again, that leaves a significant portion of the population across the board looking at their lives and deciding no, I am not happy. This may not be entirely your “fault”, as researchers believe an individual can control about 40% of their own happiness through things like the way we spend our time and what we think about. The remaining 60% is thought to result from a complex interaction of genes, behaviors, and life circumstances that form a baseline, somewhat comparable to a set point that helps determine our weight. But if we are centering our lives on “being happy”, are we really just setting ourselves up for failure?
Pursuing happiness may quickly become a never- ending chase after an emotion that cannot and will not remain constant. You are happy for a little while, but our emotions are simply reactions to how we interpret the world. They are not right or wrong, good or bad, but they do indicate how we perceive what is happening in the world around us. You might hit traffic on the morning commute to work and think “Ugh, of course this would happen to me. This sucks.” In the car behind you, the cheerful vacationer with bags piled in the backseat bobs to their playlist, thinking “Yes! The weekend is here and everyone is headed out to the lake. Bonfire tonight!”, and the mother of the new driver in the car beside you gulps and sends up a prayer for the teen she sent to school that morning as, “Oh no, there’s no scheduled construction up ahead- I wonder if there was a bad accident” runs through her head. Although some of these reactions are more likely than others, each is just one of the possible reactions to this situation, and all reflect the state of mind of the individual.
Even emotions that aren’t pleasant are simply just our way of interpreting and dealing with situations around us. We can change the way we feel about something based on what we think about it, but expecting to be happy all the time, or trying to force ourselves to be happy no matter the situation might not be the healthiest option. Some situations just suck, and you have to accept that they suck, while bearing in mind that the situation won’t last forever and that you will be okay even if you don’t feel happy rain or shine, 24/7, 365 ¼ days a year forever and ever.
Michael Foucault argues a different focus for a person’s life, saying, “I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest of life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.” At a quick glance, this approach appears riddled with identical pitfalls. Here we are talking about the flightiness of happiness, and now some scholar is actually recommending pursuing change? Why not just take your chances and focus on happiness after all, then? However, Foucault is focused on growth. The characteristic difference between a life pursuing happiness and a life pursuing growth is that happiness is a destination, and growth is a journey. If our life goal is to reach the destination of being happy, what do we do when we reach it? How do we maintain our happiness forever amid the changing circumstances and stresses of life?
Growth, in contrast, looks at life as a journey. There is no finish line to cross that marks “The End”, because life doesn’t just end when we reach a certain goal. Instead, we have our eyes set on a path, and our success is based on comparing who we were at a point in the past compared with who we are in the moment. We are able to evaluate our own progress and continue to grow, adapt, and change based on whether we can distinguish a positive growth in ourselves.
Perhaps that’s why “coming off the mountain” of an accomplishment we’ve been striving for can be so devastating- if we are looking at the completion of that goal as the “end all, be all”, we might feel lost afterwards when we look at what to base our life on after. The suggestion here is to change the way that we think about life. Ultimately, it is not about a destination- it is all about the journey. Striving and striving and striving for a capital R “Result” will just as likely leave us feeling lost as it’ll leave us satisfied. Keep your eyes on the road. There are likely to be potholes and corners and long stretches of open highway. There will be times for using your headlights, windshield wipers, favorite playlists, and even your spare tire. I can no more predict and control the future than you can. I am simply along for the ride. Drive safely.
Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser (2019) – “Happiness and Life Satisfaction”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/happiness-and-life-satisfaction’ [Online Source].
“Top Ten Countries by Happiness” (2010). Published online at Ranking America. Retrieved from ‘https://rankingamerica.wordpress.com’ [Online Source]. Data from World Values Survey.