The Pursuit of Happiness

August 3, 2011 § 40 Comments

By Tai Carmen

“You’re happiest while you’re making the greatest contribution.” ~ Robert F. Kennedy

“The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.”  ~ Eric Hoffer

“Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.”  ~Eleanor Roosevelt

“If you want to be happy, be.”  ~Leo Tolstoy

We all want to be happy. The question is, how? As philosopher John Stuart Mill pointed out: “Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so.”

Certainly, this holds truth, as anyone who has become preoccupied with the question can attest. Yet the question must be asked. After all, we are given this one life as we know it, and to spend it unhappily seems a terrible waste.

We often confuse happiness with its showier cousin: pleasure. Pleasure and fun can mimic happiness for a time, perhaps even stimulate it, but since it comes from an external source — a good meal, a good time, making love, making money — once the experience is gone, so is the feeling.

And then we are left chasing it, wanting more food, more fun, more love, more money. This can become compulsive. We become like drug addicts always looking for our next fix of circumstantially induced happiness.

But a life spent running after fleeting pleasures wears down the body and starves the soul.

In the RepublicPlato addresses this issue, distinguishing between the pleasures of the flesh and the joys of the intellect. We must choose to live well, he says, if we want to experience true happiness.

For Plato, “living well,” entails cultivating the virtues of wisdom (morality, intellect,) courage (how we face adversity, how we stand by our values,) moderation (self-control, temperance of unhealthy desires,) and justice (fighting for it and demonstrating it.) According to Plato, developing these traits will lead to a good character, which creates a balanced and happy soul.

Plato sees the soul as having three parts: the appetitive, which seeks pleasure via food, sex and drink; the spirited, which seeks victory, honor and social status; and finally, the rational, which seeks knowledge, and truth. To be happy, Plato says the rational element must rule.

The other aspects have their role, but the highest element, the rational, must discern when to pursue the lesser desires, and to what degree. For Plato, cultivating the virtues of good character will allow a soul to experience eudaimonia, or happiness, which, tellingly, translates from the ancient Greek as ‘flourishing.’

Though we typically think that achievement and success will bring us what we want –and working towards goals we care about does give us a sense of purpose — to think that lasting happiness will be granted to us once we achieve those goals is a mistake.

Statistics (and the all too common tragedy of celebrity suicide and drug overdose) show that this proves true only temporarily. Like other short-lived joys in the “external source” category, the experience giveth, and the experience taketh away.

According to Psychology Today the clamor to understand happiness and its recipe has reached a fever pitch: in 2000 just 50 books on the subject were published, while in 2008, 4000 books on the pursuit of happiness hit the shelves.

A new branch of psychology has developed over the past two decades: Positive Psychology, which aims to study the healthy thriving human, rather than making the neurotic mind its research model. The Positive Psychology approach expands upon Plato’s theory of the cultivation of virtues as the recipe for happiness:

1) Wisdom and Knowledge (creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective, innovation.)

2) Courage (bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality)

3) Humanity (love, kindness, social intelligence)

4) Justice (citizenship, fairness, leadership)

5) Temperance (forgiveness, mercy, humility, prudence, self control)

6) Transcendence (appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality.)

Positive psychologist Dr. Ben-Shahar believes our greatest obstacle in achieving happiness lies in our desire for perfection. Drawing on the idea of Plato’s Theory of Forms (wherein there exists a perfect, ideal abstract version of each flawed form within the material world,) Dr. Ben-Shahar maintains that our constant measuring of things as they are against their imagined ideal leads us to unhappiness.

The perfectionist within us all is convinced that not only is it possible to attain this ideal version of our circumstance, but often we feel entitled to it. When we do this we are doing ourselves and our circumstance a twofold disservice:

1) we are being mindless, i.e. not present in the moment, appreciating and experiencing what we truly do have; and 2) we are setting ourselves up for inevitable failure, as we are never going to be happy with what we have, comparing it to a fictitious, mental ideal.

According to Dr. Ben-Shahar, the pursuit of perfection is the downfall of our quest for happiness. In his book, The Pursuit of Perfect, he distinguishes between what he terms Perfectionists and Optimalists.

The ideals of the Perfectionist (also known in psychology as a negative perfectionist) are unrealistic, based in fantasy. Perfectionists are extremely uncomfortable with failure, and tend to turn on themselves and/or others when their expectations are not met. This rejection of failure and painful emotions in turn leads them to anxiety and more pain.

Conversely, Optimalists (also known as positive perfectionists) have attainable goals, and base their high standards in reality. They accept failure as inevitable and instructive. With this awareness, and by adjusting our attitudes accordingly, we can move from Perfectionism to Optimalism, and, theoretically, from distress to the happiness we seek.

Psychology Today writer Carlin Flora observes, “Happiness is not about smiling all of the time. It’s not about eliminating bad moods, or trading your Tolstoy-inspired nuance and ambivalence toward people and situations for cheery pronouncements devoid of critical judgment.”

Which brings up the question…what is happiness?

“The most useful definition,” details Flora, “—and it’s one agreed upon by neuroscientists, psychiatrists, behavioral economists, positive psychologists, and Buddhist monks—is more like satisfied or content than ‘happy’ in its strict bursting-with-glee sense. It has depth and deliberation to it. It encompasses living a meaningful life, utilizing your gifts and your time, living with thought and purpose.

“It’s maximized when you also feel part of a community. And when you confront annoyances and crises with grace. It involves a willingness to learn and stretch and grow, which sometimes involves discomfort.

“It requires acting on life, not merely taking it in. It’s not joy, a temporary exhilaration, or even pleasure, that sensual rush—though a steady supply of those feelings course through those who seize each day.”

She also points out that happiness is not our reward for escaping pain, but rather demands that we confront negative feelings head on.

In The Happiness Trap, Dr. Russ Harris calls popular conceptions of happiness dangerous, as they set people up for a “struggle against reality.” Real life is full of disappointments, loss, and struggle. “If you’re going to live a rich and meaningful life,” Harris says, “you’re going to feel a full range of emotions.”

For Viktor Frankl, neurologist, psychiatrist, writer and Holocaust surviver, happiness is having a sense of personal meaning:

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.” 

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankle describes how he survived the horrors of Auschwitz by finding personal meaning in the experience. He recalls a moment, amidst the brutal, demoralizing conditions, when he suddenly conjured the mental image of his wife’s face:

“…my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness […] A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers.

“The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”

 

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