Should we even seek happiness?

Nephew: Last night Dad warned me about seeking happiness. He reckons, ‘Who wants to be a grinning idiot with no real substance?’ Does he have a point?

Uncle: As I have said, being happy is not about being a grinning idiot. Happy people still suffer; they still feel all the dark emotions – hurt, anger, fear, sadness . . . They just aren’t shattered by them. And when you are not shattered by your emotions you can grow.

Nephew: That’s right! Isn’t suffering supposed to make us happy, in some bizarre way?

Uncle: No. That’s a myth. Many people have suffered and become twisted and bitter. It’s not the suffering which helps us grow, it’s how we deal with our suffering.

Nephew: Dad also said if I become happy I will become content and lose my passion and motivation. Any chance I have of excelling in life will dissipate like smoke in the wind.

Uncle: He’s a cheery man, your father.

Nephew: Does he have a point?

Uncle: With a strong core happiness you won’t have a chance to live a bland, passionless existence. Instead, you will be taking risks and extending your boundaries, because you will know that whatever happens, you will handle it. With a strong core happiness you will be more productive. Happiness is not about contentment. Contentment is for cows.

Nephew: Even if you’re right, is it pointless to seek happiness? There is a German proverb: ‘Happiness is a butterfly. Chase it and it eludes you. Sit down quietly and it will alight on your shoulder.’

Uncle: The proverb sounds good, but it’s wrong. The philosopher John Stuart Mill said something similar: ‘Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.’ He was wrong too. The people who claim that seeking happiness is futile don’t know where to look. People used to believe it was impossible to build a flying machine because they couldn’t figure out how to do it.

Nephew: But you’ve figured it out?

Uncle: Yep.

Nephew: Of course you have. Well, even if we can seek happiness, should we? A book I’m reading* points out that unhappiness has prompted wonderful art and stirring music, and the author fears that we might become bland without these ‘agitations of the soul’. Doesn’t he have a point? Don’t we need the agitations of the soul to create things like music or poetry?

Uncle: A happy person will still have the agitations of the soul. There will always be something inside each and every one of us that needs saying. Being happy will not kill that; instead it will give you the freedom and confidence to express those agitations. A musician might in dark times compose music so beautiful it feeds the listener’s soul, but that does not mean the musician can’t enjoy the better times. When you have a strong core happiness you can deal with the dark times, and what better way to deal with them than to express them in music, or in poetry, or in what drives you?

Nephew: But isn’t searching for happiness twee? Surely we have more important things to focus on?

Uncle: Such as?

Nephew: Living our life?

Uncle: I’m not suggesting the aim of life is to be happy and that we should focus on that. Life is to be lived; happiness is merely the lubricant to make it worth living.

Nephew: What if our happiness is in our genes? Wouldn’t that mean happiness is out of our hands?

Uncle: Your genes play only a part. Someone born with ‘glum’ genes can still become happier, as can a cheery person, if they have been undermining their core happiness and cease to do so. I’m not suggesting we can raise our level of core happiness above our natural level, but we can make sure it’s at the level it should be.

Nephew: Righto.

Uncle: Being happy is not about being a grinning idiot; it’s not about contentment, or suffering, or not suffering. It’s not about keeping yourself well back from the abyss. It’s about approaching the abyss and peering deep down into it, so that although your very soul may shiver, you know, on a deep and fundamental level, that you will not succumb. It’s that confidence, that knowledge that we can handle what happens in life, that allows our anxiety to evaporate, and core happiness to rise in its place.

Nephew: You give me the willies sometimes.

Uncle: Good.

Nephew: So, unlike my father, you think we should we try to be happy?

Uncle: No.

Nephew: No?!

Uncle: What does it mean to ‘try to be happy’? To ignore our dark feelings and pretend they aren’t there? To replace our dark feelings with ‘happy thoughts’, and a happy disposition? Of course not.  We can’t simply flick a switch and be happy. To think that is naive and simplistic.

Nephew: What then?

Uncle: Instead of trying to manufacture an emotion we don’t have – happiness – we need to deal with the dark emotions we do have. Those dark emotions are there for a reason, and when we get good at responding to them we gain the feeling that we can handle life. That’s when core happiness comes. If a well-meaning person tells you, ‘try to be happy’, dismiss the advice.

Nephew: Alright, but if we shouldn’t try to be happy, what should we do?

Uncle: We can aim to be happy. We can choose to do things that will satisfy our innate needs. By doing so, we can add to our core happiness.

Nephew: Choose to do what things?

Uncle: You could choose to clear off and let me do my work.

Nephew: According to your theory, me clearing off would only give you the pleasure kind of happiness.

Uncle: (Sigh)

‘Only through recognising my happiness did I really appreciate it.’
Gretchen Rubin.

* ‘Against Happiness’ by Eric G. Wilson

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