We all want to be happy. The pursuit of happiness is a legally guaranteed right in our country, and many people profess that the very purpose of life is to attain happiness. I disagree. Before you dismiss me as a cynical, pessimistic heretic, consider this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, which will form the foundation of this article: “Happiness is not a goal, it is a bi-product.” I am not suggesting that we should not desire to be happy. However by placing happiness on a holy pedestal we lose sight of what it really is—and, ironically—it becomes unattainable.
So what is happiness anyway? Stoics historically believed that happiness was virtue, while Epicureans insisted that it was pleasure. Thucydides claimed that the key to happiness is freedom, though many economists maintain that happiness comes at a specific price, which must be adjusted annually for inflation. Coca-Cola declares that finding happiness is as simple as slamming down their soda, but Trident sells “little pieces of happy” that are better for your teeth. You can buy happiness from the pharmacist, or from the shady character standing on a downtown street corner near the homeless shelter. I have even attempted to persuade my readers that helping others will lead you down the trail of elation.
Everywhere we turn it seems like someone has a solution for sadness. So why is it that approximately 10% of the population struggles with chronic depression? And why is that number rising by 20% each year? Perhaps they suffer from a lack of fizzy liquids and minty gum. Or maybe many of us just feel overwhelmed by the constant social pressure to always act and feel “happy.”
One need only peruse Facebook to observe that our culture seems to define happiness by people with big smiles embracing each other at Disneyland, at the beach, or in a night club. The thing that strikes me about this social media proliferated, snap-shot style projection of happiness is that it is apparently dependent upon immediate happenings. Settings, events and consumables captured in freeze frames offer insight into why everyone in the picture appears so happy. Selfie shots of smiling faces often carry the unspoken implication that the person is happy because they took an attractive picture of themselves, or because they are in the act of doing something picture-worthy.
There is nothing wrong with finding joy in events or people—on the contrary, they are an important part of our lives. The issue is that our culture, specifically as it is portrayed by social media, seems to idolize happiness, to its own detriment. No one puts pictures of them crying with their family after their dog died, even though sharing in moments of sadness allows us to connect with our loved ones just as much, if not more, than do moments of joy. I’m not advocating that we all start displaying ourselves at our lowest, saddest moments on social media, but rather that we become more willing to acknowledge that life is not a montage of funny, friendly, jubilant snapshots. It is natural to feel sad, and I believe that it is unhealthy for us to project ourselves as being—and expect ourselves to be—constantly happy.
When we constantly soak up media indicating that everyone around us is always smiling and having a good time, we come to develop a false expectation of what happiness is and what role it plays in our lives. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why so many of us are always plugged into our phones and laptops. When people are saturated with expectations for happiness, assessing whether or not they are happy becomes habitual. Thus, in lieu of an immediately perceptible source of pleasure, people mistakenly assume that they are sad, and that they should do something to change that. So they play some mind-numbing game on their phone while they guzzle a Coke, inhale sugar candies, perhaps pop a pill and listen to “Everything is Awesome” from the Lego Movie soundtrack. If all else fails to generate a synthetic sense of happiness, take a selfie and see how many people in your network like the way that you look at that very second.
Don’t get me wrong, I like being happy just as much as the next guy, but I believe that negative emotions are healthy for us, and that we should not be afraid to experience and express them. I also believe that a lack of happiness does not equate to unhappiness. Unhappiness doesn’t always need to be cured by some external remedy. It is ok to be bored, or to feel lonely. These feelings force us to explore the endless, mysterious and beautiful caverns of our own minds. They compel us to talk to ourselves, to ask questions that might not have answers, and to strengthen our empathy muscles. It’s easy to appear happy by putting on a smile all of the time, whilst suppressing uncomfortable emotions with constant distraction—but that is not real happiness. I believe that we cannot know real joy until we are familiarized with the rest of the emotional spectrum.
So, my advice for a seeker of genuine happiness is to cry, to contemplate, to wonder. Critically evaluate some sources of sorrow in the world, or in your own life, and then make a goal to ameliorate that sadness in some way, for yourself or, better yet, for someone else. Don’t expect perennial happiness, and do not make it your goal to attain happiness in life. Make it your goal to improve the world, and happiness will naturally flow from the process of achieving your purpose.