Americans say that Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness are the unalienable rights given to humans by God. Pursuit of happiness – an unending chase to do things that we think increases our serotonin levels? What exactly is happiness to us? What if we spend our whole lives in pursuit of it? Are we ever going to achieve happiness and, as they say, live happily ever after?
The greatest misconception that we unconsciously promote in our lives is that happiness is absolute, that after a period of hard work and struggle, we are destined to ‘be’ happy. There is no such thing as absolute happiness. People run around saying ‘I want to be happy’ or ‘I want to live a happy life’. The fact is you have already been happy twice or thrice today, or even more. Were you not happy when you passed that stage on that video game? Or when you had your favorite dish for dinner at home? What else do you expect, happiness for a life time? How do you expect to achieve consistent serotonin and dopamine levels for the rest of your lives? This is something ‘biologically impossible’. Why chase it then? Now that is exactly the question I have been trying to ask myself as well as others for quite some time.
The problem with the pursuit of happiness is that it never ends. When we pursue happiness, we are actually pursuing tomorrow’s happiness, an imaginary state of being in an imaginary future, and we are willing to risk what we have today for something that we might or might not get tomorrow. Now that is unfortunate.
What’s more unfortunate is that humans are awful at predicting what makes them happy. Most of us spend our lives in pursuit of the things that we think make us happy only to find out that we had our eyes on the wrong target all along. Even if we happen to achieve something that genuinely makes us happy, we expect this happiness to be absolute and everlasting which it never is. Thus the inevitable despair.
I was listening to huMAN on YouTube and he beautifully explained the permanent dissatisfaction of human beings from an evolutionary stand-point. He argues that any living being who can have a long-term psychological satisfaction from a single meal or a single act of sex wouldn’t survive for long. He calls it “Proximal Dissatisfaction” that nature continuously throws in to keep us moving and evolving over the long evolutionary game. He compares pursuit of happiness to the pursuit of attachments to any material thing. And in fact, both of them are causing people much of their frustration. Because when we are pursuing the happiness of future, we are not here. We are always mentally there.
Happiness can only be experienced in the present and us being happy is the consequence of something that is real and present – not something from the future. This makes the pursuit of future happiness an illusion, something that we never get to because it’s always tomorrow. Happiness, in fact, is the consequence of our conscious actions in the present, it is the result of our virtues, or of going our own way. You take actions today, you don’t pursue them tomorrow. What actions are we taking today to get the very likely consequence of happiness that follows?
What’s the alternative then? If not the pursuit of happiness than what? You could probably argue that at least this pursuit of happiness gives us hope, a little push to keep going in otherwise hopeless life. But the reality is contrary to this argument. It is a scientifically proven fact that people who chase happiness are the least happy. So what now? What do we look for in life if not happiness? What do we pursue?
Jungian analyst James Hollis suggested that we must let our actions guided not by the pursuit of happiness but rather by asking ‘Does this choice make me larger or smaller’?
This question takes us from the pursuit of happiness to the ‘pursuit of meaning’.
As Carl Jung himself said,
The least of things with a meaning are worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.
The best alternative to the pursuit of happiness, therefore, might actually be the pursuit of meaning. Take, for instance, an example of a person who’s wife just died. How easy is it to find happiness in this situation – need we ask? It is but suffering. Now try to find meaning in this situation. The man is suffering because his pain is meaningless. He doesn’t deserve this. Think about it from a different perspective. What if it was him who died first instead of his wife? How much his wife would’ve suffered then? Tell him that her death undoubtedly gave you tremendous pain but it saved her the equally tremendous pain of losing you. How is he going to feel now? Much better! Because now his pain is meaningful and even in this tense situation, he can find a moment of real joy and satisfactory happiness knowing that his pain saved her wife the equally devastating pain that might have destroyed her.
Find meaning in everything, for that is what ends your suffering and gives you happiness which is real and far more long lasting – not merely an illusion from the future.