Friday, February 16, 2007

The Pursuit of Happiness

After our conversation yesterday, Heather sent me 2 articles about happiness. One (from Fast Company – – which appears to be a career magazine) was about jobs, and the author was interviewing a career specialist who seemed to think that choosing your job based on personal happiness was ridiculous, and that people should be doing what will improve their skills and advance their position, whether they like it or not. The other one (from Yoga Journal) was about how the expectation of happiness results in extra pressure on people who aren’t happy – so that if you are depressed you feel like a failure, and the cycle continues.

Today, there was an article in the Montreal Gazette about an upcoming forum that Canada and the United States are holding on mental health, which they’ve decided is necessary since a recent poll shows that 1 in 6 Canadian and American adults have been diagnosed with depression.

So here’s the questions? Number 1 – should we expect to be happy? And, number 2 – does our expectation of happiness actually lead to more depression?

So first – should we expect to be happy? In the article from Yoga Journal, the author notes that the concept of a right to be happy is a relatively recent thing, and that through most of human history, there was no such expectation. In the American Constitution, the “pursuit of happiness” is protected. But Americans, along with us here in Canada, are suffering from an alarming rate of depression (but that’s maybe getting into question #2). Should we expect to be happy? Well – of course I want to be happy, but I don’t know if it’s fair to expect it all the time. Awful devastating things happen in the world, and we should be able to engage with them when they happen to us, or people we care about, or even to complete strangers – and we shouldn’t be happy, because they are not happy things. It seems that if we selfishly pursued happiness at all costs, we could never truly love – because love involves compassion and empathy, and it can also involve sacrifice. I think that love is more important than happiness.

The next question – are we making ourselves unhappy through our pursuit of happiness? I don’t want to make any kind of blanket statement about this because, just like depression can be worsened by the feeling that have failed by being unhappy, it seems like blaming the depressed person for even wanting to be happy is equally unhelpful. So, with the caveat that I don’t want this to turn into some kind of victim-blaming session, I will proceed: yes, I think that we are making ourselves unhappy. First, I believe the idea that the expectation of happiness is stressful. It comes out in our worries about jobs – the idea that we have to find the most amazing fulfilling position right away, or we’re selling out – there’s all this stress, because of the feeling like we need to be fulfilled, as well as making money and developing skills.

I think that one of the fundamental problems, beyond the stress of unfulfilled expectations, that leads to our pursuit of happiness resulting in more depression is that we don’t even know how to pursue happiness. We get all these images of what happiness is supposed to be – whether it’s a perfect wedding followed by a white picket fence, or a backpack and the open road, or a hot tank-top and a club. And then we end up in these moments that we orchestrate, and feel like they’re supposed to be enough, and now we should be happy, but then we realize that they’re not enough, and we’re not happy, and don’t understand why the people in the movies seemed so ecstatic when they were in these situations. . . . enter the feeling of failure for not being happy, and the depression that you are trying to live the dream, and the dream is hollow.

And so here we are, the wealthiest and the most depressed continent in the world. It would seem like living the dream isn’t quite what it’s cracked up to be. . . but I don’t want to leave on such a bleak note. I think that we can reach beyond trying to blindly pursue happiness. We can pursue truth and love, and these things will lead to happiness some of the time. And some of the time they will lead to our hearts being broken, but we will be closer to being real and to being fulfilled than if we binge on soma (Brave New World? Anyone?) and just try to be happy all the time.


Joseph Moreau said...

That was beautifully said!

I am so happy to have you as a friend. (he he) Could not resist.

Seriously though, I consider myself blessed to count you as a friend.

-Joseph stumbling to love and serve a broken world.... finding sustainability in real this blogger at 'hell in a handbasket'

simone said...

Hmmm, happiness is a tough one and so I’ll go off on another long rambling post here (you’ll have to excuse the fact that I tend to write in stream of consciousness on blog post comments! - Nice post, and you raise some really interesting questions. I'll pose a few of my own and try and answer them as best I can.

1. What is Happiness? – further to what el Maggie said about love being stronger than happiness it reminds me of the discussions we used to have about inner joy and being at peace. The theme was that these were steadier states of being than happiness which is so volatile and situation based. Maybe we aren’t always “happy” but we can try to have inner joy and a state of being that is somewhat steady (and positive). To me you can still be content – overall – knowing that happiness comes in spurts but isn’t supposed to be a constant state. Maybe the problem comes when you expect to be happy all the time??

2. What makes us happy? - I thought the question – should we expect to be happy? is an interesting one. To me it brings to mind two “sub” questions – Should we expect others to make us happy? should we try to bring happiness to others? Should we try to make ourselves happy? - Should we make ourselves happy at the expense of others?– it seems to me that maybe part II holds the crux of the argument. I don’t think that we can expect people or the world to make us happy. But I think that we should go about life trying to make other people happy and hopefully the majority of them will return the favour. I get frustrated with people who are always saying that everyone is out to get them, and finding negative sides to every situation. It seems like things aren't often as bad as people think they are.

3. Unhappiness – we don’t know how to deal with it. Therefore it’s even more stigmatized. I was reading blog posts today about women (and men) crying in the workplace and what a taboo it is. We don’t show our negative emotions because we aren’t taught how to help other people through them and don’t want to be a burden. People don’t like to be around sad people, so we have to always pretend that things are all right. I think there’s maybe a time to keep a stiff upper lip, but if we had better ways of dealing with sadness maybe we could work things out faster! I have two friends who were struggling with depression. A wanted to speak about it with everyone she knew and work through things out loud. B wanted to deal with it on a more private level and not burden people with her problems. B also didn’t want to dwell on her sadness all the time. She felt she’d get better faster if she didn’t always talk about how depressed she was. However, A wanted/needed to talk about her feelings all the time, positive or negative. I’m not sure that one method was better than the other for dealing with depression, but A and B’s friendship suffered and they are no longer friends because of it because of the differences. This is a long winded (as usual) way of saying that I think that people are stressed about being happy partly because they are negatively received if they are not happy.

These are just some random thoughts. i've been lucky that I am relatively happy most of the time. I like my life, the people in it, and what I do. So my comments on happiness are coming from that perspective. I don't know if the pursuit of happiness makes people more depressed. I guess it all comes down to definitions again.

anyhow, It's getting late so I should stop rambling, thanks for a thoughtful post, I'll be mulling it over for a while.

el Maggie said...

Got e-mailed some comments that I thought were interesting, and worth posting in the general discussion:

1. I agree with you that often the problem is confusion over what will make one happy. This can be quite individualised (vary from person to person), and it becomes difficult for individuals to determine what will make them happy with societal expectation.

2. Can you love properly if you are not happy?

3. I think we have to be careful not to confuse pressures from society (you say "good job, sucess," etc.) with happiness. Pursuit of those things is not necessarily pursuit of happiness.

Melissa said...

hmmm, this was a very thought-provoking posting. Thanks Mags!

I personally think one of the biggest impediments to happiness
is comparing your internal state to an external ideal...whether that be what you don`t have (job, love, posessions) or what you imagine exists out there you don`t have access to. Erich Fromm was a well known psychoanalyst who talked about this reaching-out (and it`s intersection with loving) in his book the Àrt of Loving.

(and it is NOT a sequel to the Joy Of...)

From that sense of needing to possess (and comparing your inner state to external guidelines or fulfillments) comes desperation.

It feels like so many of us, myself included, are bogged down by unvoiced standards of the `complete`life--that all external elements have to be equal and balanced for happiness. (Re. good job, good finances, good love).

This leads to rating and evaluating neer ending.

Simone, I liked what you said about feeling at peace rather than the bouciness of happiness, Carolyn that is like your comment that setting up the perfect situation doesn`t mean the internal will fall into place.

All we have to work with are our own minds and spirit. If we can approach ourselves with gentility, perhaps we can develop love. I like how Car put it, and agree with her:

love involves compassion and empathy, and it can also involve sacrifice. I think that love is more important than happiness.

So, Carolyn, next question... what is this love ;)