Is the Pursuit of Happiness an Illusion or a Worthwhile Goal?
“When one door of happiness closes, another opens, but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one that has been opened for us.” — Helen Keller
The Pursuit of Happiness
The American author Henry David Thoreau once said: “Happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder…”
If we suggest happiness is an illusion that means it is impossible to achieve. Considering the suffering in the world, many believe happiness is an unattainable goal. It is remiss of me to solve this question in an article when religion and philosophy have tried to settle this dilemma for centuries. I can only reason that despite the suffering in the world, happiness is still attainable.
How is this possible you ask?
In underdeveloped countries inspite of poverty, happiness prevails when people’s basic needs are met. Contrast to the developed countries, daily life is more chaotic with high rates of stress and mental illness due to our demanding lifestyle.
To offer another opinion, the Canadian psychologist Jordan B. Peterson writes in 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos: “In a crisis, the inevitable suffering that life entails can rapidly make a mockery of the idea that happiness is the proper pursuit of the individual.”
So, by focussing on the suffering in the world means losing sight of happiness as an attainable goal. In which case, it becomes a fleeting experience when your attention is directed towards it.
Many people believe happiness will transform their lives. Hence, the seeker travels far and wide in search of it, while all along it is contained within him.
Our hectic lifestyle makes happiness harder to attain since our minds are constantly preoccupied with something. Technology and communication devices vie for our attention and many people find it challenging to be alone in silence without a smart phone tethered to them.
I contend that happiness is achievable when we let go of unnecessary distractions. These include: toxic thoughts, habits, negative emotions, destructive relationships, unimportant commitments, etc.
By simplifying life, we create the idyllic conditions for happiness to thrive.
The teacher of spiritual self-enquiry Rupert Spira, explains in Being Aware of Being Aware that happiness is our core nature and cannot be gained, but expressed: “Happiness is our very nature and lies at the source of the mind, or the heart of ourself, in all conditions and under all circumstances. It cannot be acquired; it can only be revealed.”
If we direct our attention on the negatives of life, i.e. daily news, gossip & tabloid magazines, etc., we are drawn to what is wrong in the world, thus inhibiting the flow of happiness. You cannot read the tabloids without being fixated on the next ensuing drama. Our awareness should be channelled into worthwhile experiences which offer joy and happiness instead.
The notion that happiness is elusive stems from our inability to concentrate our attention long enough to experience it. If we believe happiness is unattainable, it becomes elusive since we have not created a conducive environment for it to flourish.
Reconnect With Happiness
“There is only one cause of unhappiness: the false beliefs you have in your head, beliefs so widespread, so commonly held, that it never occurs to you to question them.” – Anthony de Mello
Your beliefs shape your perceptions, which creates your experience of life.
Regrettably, many people drive happiness away because of their constant attention on external conditions. Therefore, suffering is inevitable when their needs are not met.
The need for evidence that the world is a dark and grim place makes happiness an impossible goal. Fear and hatred are broadcast into our minds every moment of the day, it’s no wonder it seems like an illusion.
Similarly, popular culture espouses that material possessions are the only source of happiness and fulfilment. If you don’t earn a seven figure salary or drive the latest European sports car and live in an affluent neighbourhood, you must be unhappy. And so the vicious cycle continues.
At the same time, many search for happiness through worldly experiences only to discover it has vanished from their lives when they return home. At this point they direct their interest towards gaining more ‘things’ or becoming involved in an intimate relationship in the hope it will bring them the happiness they long for.
Assuredly, the novelty wears off once more and they are back where they started—struggling to fill an empty void.
It begs the question, does happiness happen to us?—is it an externally generated experience, or a user generated experience?
If we subscribe to the belief that happiness occurs without our control, we remain at the mercy of it being a transitory experience. Conversely, if we believe we are the wellspring of our own happiness, it will present itself in our everyday life. This is empowering for several reasons least of which submits we become the source of our own joy instead of believing it is not within our own volition.
In his book Hardwiring Happiness, neuropsychologist Rick Hanson summarises how happiness can be attained by applying a four step practice, he calls H.E.A.L.
- Have a positive experience
2. Enrich it
3. Absorb it
4. Link a positive experience to it (optional)
1. Have a positive experience: Hold the thought of a positive experience in your mind such the gratitude towards your partner, pet or family. Find evidence of an experience and focus on that.
2. Enrich it: Stay with the experience longer and feel it in your body. Notice it in new ways and experience the feelings as openly as you can. This is a mental exercise that requires training your brain to associate pleasure with your thoughts.
3. Absorb it: Allow the sensations you experienced in Step 2 to sink deeper into your mind and body. Allow it to become a cellular experience. For example, the sense of falling in love will be felt in your chest or you might experience tingling sensations throughout your body. Allow it to become a mind-body experience.
4. Link a positive experience to it (optional): While holding a positive experience in the forefront of your mind, find an association to a negative thought from the past. Shift between the two thoughts, however give more attention to the enriching experience while the negative ones gradually fall away.
To attain happiness, we must connect with our core nature, yet be able to find happiness in our everyday life. You will be surprised how inviting the world can be when you notice the smallest things that bring you happiness. It involves building a mental sanctuary leaning towards happy moments and pruning away undesirable experiences.
Allow the joy to come from within you, not without. It was the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius who said: “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”
If you rush about your daily life, plugged in to electronic devices with little or no quiet time, happiness will pass you by like a high-speed train.
So make it a vow to integrate happiness into your life by noticing it in your everyday life. Reconnect with your child-like nature. Be curious towards the simple things in life and I assure you, happiness will not seem like an illusion.