The unalienable rights described in the United States Constitution are famous around the world: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Some scholars believe this phrase to be inspired by the philosophies of John Locke regarding government’s purpose to be to protect property. Variations on this phrase can be found in constitutions and organizations in countries around the world. In a political context, since language and the meaning of words can change over time, what this meant when the US Constitution was written is likely not the way most people understand the phrase today. Conversations about the role of government, property rights, and civil liberties aside (don’t worry, it’s not forever), let’s talk about “the pursuit of Happiness” as most people today understand it.
Possibly one of the most desired, talked about, sought after, and sold intangibles in people’s lives is happiness. An image search for “happiness is” will bring up a number of results, from sentimental ones like “being with you” to “sleeping diagonally”. Goodreads has 42,305 quotes about it. If we all know that “Happiness is fleeting”, why are we seemingly so enamoured with finding ways to keep it? A fundamental shift needs to take place about what happiness means in our lives.
The difference between an emotion and an ideal is difficult to determine. There seems to be an understanding that some emotions are things to strive for as life-defining and others are not. I’ve heard parents say they don’t care what their kids are, as long as they’re happy. As if nothing else in the world matters but a single emotion. I’m going to try not to be a hypocrite and refrain from giving parenting advice because I don’t have children. I have thus far decided that I have no desire to fuck up anyone’s life but my own. However, there are a tonne of adults out there who seem to think that if they are not happy, they are failures, or they need to do something to change themselves. Corporations and marketers capitalize on this train of thought and try to tell us that we will be happy if we lose 20 lbs., use this product to look younger, indulge in this chocolate, wear this brand or have the latest gadget. Bullshit. Happiness is an emotion and like every emotion, it passes.
Smarter people than I have written about the pursuit of happiness making us unhappy. In fact, Viktor Frankl (the guy I just paraphrased) pioneered an entire branch of clinical psychiatry around this whole topic. Dr. Frankl was already an established psychiatrist before being locked away in a concentration camp during WWII. He corresponded with Sigmund Freud as a teenager. He established suicide-prevention clinics in medical school. While in the concentration camp, he continued to practice and theorized that the people who lived through the concentration camps were the people who found meaning in their lives. To some, that might have been family waiting for them outside of the camps, for others it was academic or creative works left unfinished. For all of them, it was their reason for living.
One of the reasons that I began again on this blog was a prodding from my own psychiatrist to find what put the meaning into my own life. I live with mental illness (one of which is bipolar disorder) and have learned that living my life in a constant pursuit of happiness is not only a waste of my time, but is like slowly tying a noose for myself. When I would hit a depressive episode, I would tell myself that I am clearly failing at life because the most important thing is to be happy…right? Through medication, I don’t cycle quite as dramatically anymore, but that is not to say that I didn’t also need to develop healthy coping mechanisms and outlooks that involved rearranging what I believed about life and the world. One of the beliefs holding me back was that as long as I am happy, my life is good.
A frequently asked question is would you rather be a happy idiot or a miserable genius? I don’t think that the answer is in any way clear cut.
Chasing happiness is often associated with selfish behavior. For good reason too, I think. Fulfillment comes from some sacrifice. That “miserable genius” could have a very fulfilling life with a high level of satisfaction, if they used their genius to the benefit of other people and the world (because I’m idealistic or something). And even a “happy idiot” might be able to tell if there was something missing, something a little bit empty about their life. Wouldn’t that then make the idiot unhappy? I’m not sure what everyone’s criteria is, but when I think of a person to fit the phrase “happy idiot”, I think of George. He was intellectually disabled and/or developmentally delayed, but he was one of the happiest seeming people I have ever met. But the thing about George? He helped people constantly. Maybe the way he lived his life and his happiness were related.
Happiness is a choice that we are able to make. Allowing the simple things like “sleeping diagonally” to let you feel bright and shiny and new, even if it only lasts 30 seconds. Most people have many things to be happy about but fail to see them because they are so busy looking for happiness like it is a thing that can be possessed. From what I can tell though, true happiness comes when we finally look beyond what we think will bring us happiness, and do something that will fulfill us, allowing us to see the unexpected things that can make all the difference.