Some days it feels like that whole world is out to get you. Specifically, to get you happier. Too bad the world doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing.
Happiness is the romantic’s holy grail, the supreme emotion, the shining star that brings us warmth as we stumble through life. We don’t just want to feel happy, we want to be happy — not in the moment, but in general, to allow happiness to be the defining feature of our existence.
This isn’t new. The pursuit of happiness has been at the center of philosophical debate since the beginning of philosophy — and at the center of human behavior since the dawn of humanity.
What is at least somewhat new is that happiness is now both an essential commodity and the lodestar of our decision-making process. We know it’s important, we try to seek it, we want more of it in our lives, everyone is trying to sell it to us — but at the same time, we don’t really know what it is.
Happiness and the “gospel of me”
It may just be me and the circles I’ve gotten myself into, but I have the feeling that nowadays every other conversation is about happiness. Are you happy at your job? Are you happy with your life? Are you happy in your relationship? Are you happier now that you’re not in a relationship? Honestly, I never quite know how to answer — but that’s OK, because in most cases those questions are either fillers or an excuse for other people to bludgeon you with their tales of happiness.
Happiness has overrun our decision-making process — which I believe is among the reasons there’s so much ill will toward Millennials. The internet has opened us up to infinite new ideas, myriad ways of thinking from every recess of human civilization. We no longer have to accept the communal knowledge on how we should live our lives — we need to find it for ourselves, by perusing through the bottomless repository of human knowledge. With that much power comes great angst.
It used to be that if you were wondering about a job, you’d ask a friend, teacher or family member for advice. For the spinier questions about morality and purpose, you could turn to religion.
In our modern hyper-connected high speed information utopia, that way of life has all but eroded. “Because God said so” sounds pontifical, “Because my parents said so” sounds childish, and “Because my friends are doing it” sounds feeble. We live by the worship of I, and the gospel of me dictates that I must find my own path. If I get it right, that path will lead me to happiness — and the journey is powered by Google.
Stop trying to get me into yoga
Happiness has become the one emotion that it is universally socially acceptable to strive for in every decision we make. It is widely perceived as an objective and ideal state of being.
This fairy-tale conception we have of happiness has made it a ubiquitous part of our daily interactions. I’m sure you’ve heard your fair share of: “I’ve been feeling so much better since I started yoga,” “I’m so much happier now that I’m single,” “Not getting that job was the best thing that could’ve happened to me, because even if I would have made more money, I’m so much happier now,” and so on.
Sharing stories of happiness is fine, but two things about this collective reframing have been bugging me. The first is the tendency people have to use happiness as a rationalization tool for otherwise questionable decisions. This is also known as the “you only live once” trend — basically people making a rash decision in the moment and then justifying it by saying “This is what makes me happy, and happiness is what matters.”
For some people, that way of life is actually the deep-seeded philosophical underpinning for everything they do, in which case fine, it’s a somewhat intellectually consistent way of life. But let’s face it, usually this crew is full of people with poor impulse control doing something they will deeply regret later, but ignoring the consequences because thinking too hard is lame and instant happiness is objectively good in me-world. I’ve wasted enough time already listening to these people use nihilism as an opportunistic rhetorical weapon to defend their lack of judgement.
The second thing is projection. Empathy is hard. We are limited to seeing the world for our own perspective, and there will always be some degree of projection in trying to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. However, this projection can become particularly obnoxious when it comes to happiness.
I’m sure you’ve been in a situation where someone you know has tried to sell you their recipe for happiness. A well-meaning friend will say something like:
“Going to yoga six times a week has completely changed my life!” Obviously it has — if you spend that much time doing anything, it becomes your life.
“Maybe you should break up! I remember I felt so much better when I finally got out of my toxic relationship.” I’m glad you’re feeling better, but no two relationships are that similar, and I doubt you know as much about my situation as you think you do.
“Try getting eight hours a sleep per night, doing exercise in the morning and turning off all screens two hours before bed time, that way you’ll be happy!” If I had that kind of willpower and control over my own sleep, I would be Iron Man (albeit much more boring).
Truth is, there is no magic pill. There is no single piece of advice that can transform a person’s life and bring lasting happy. Yoga is great for a lot of things, but if I’m feeling existential unrest, the only way out is to take a hard, objective look at my life situation — preferably with an expert around to help. The simple fixes are at best kicking the can down the road, and at worst taking a placebo to fight a slowly progressing cancer.
Fast Happiness, now with extra purpose
The blind pursuit of happiness has grown so pervasive in our society that it has been co-opted by the most world’s most powerful engine of human behavior: Capitalism.
Emotions have been so heavily commodified that it’s no longer enough for a soda to taste good and give diabetes — cola is now the official taste of happiness. My fridge will not just cool my food, it will bring me joy. My week-long vacation to Bali isn’t just a way to escape my routine, it’s a portal to a fantasy realm where I can unwind, reset my brain, recharge my batteries, and all the other weak technological metaphors we use to break down complex neurological phenomena.
Companies have gone as far as to use happiness as a recruitment tool. Millennials may not be making enough money to afford a decent apartment or pay off student debt, but we can rest assured that flexible work, couches in the office and free coffee will bring us more life satisfaction than money ever could. After all, remember children, money can’t buy happiness! (Only beverages, refrigerators and plane tickets.)
Some of the more progressive companies are realizing that there are different kinds of happiness, each triggered in different ways. Executives, desperate to fit centuries of debate and research into a 30-minute PowerPoint, turn to simple and accessible schematizations. Sadly, the complexity of the human brain and the variety of ways in which people can experience happiness don’t fit neatly into a quarterly sales plan, so they have been cast away by the business world in favor of simple models meant to convey basic insights to lay audiences. Anyone who has experienced the Dunning-Kruger effect will admit, the most comfortable place to be is right before the fall.
This disconnect between the nuanced research coming out of universities and the simplistic diagrams displayed in executive boardrooms is not new, but there’s something pernicious about the corporate simplification of happiness. In very few cases is there genuine interest on the part of corporations to understand what happiness really means — whether psychologically or philosophically. Much more often, happiness is the afterthought, the marketing tool for an existing good or service. The goal of the company then isn’t to actually to sell a product that will actually have a demonstrable effect on happiness, but rather to package their product in a way to convince people it will make them happy. Companies have a far better understanding of the psychology of persuasion than they do the science of happiness.
Yet as consumers, we fall for it time and time again. We listen to these thought leaders and business gurus sell us the half-baked secrets to unlocking our inner happiness. It doesn’t take binoculars to see that these self-proclaimed wellness messiahs have no clothes.
Accepting that happiness is hard
We start experiencing happiness when we’re very young. Since that feeling has been with us for such a long time, we wrongly assume that it’s simple. After all, I’ve been able to recognize my own feelings of happiness since I was a child — so surely, it’s an emotion that even children can understand! We wrongly believe that because happiness seems so simple, everyone must experience happiness the same way, over the same things. Unfortunately, nothing important in life is that easy to grasp.
It’s like having that one song that you really love, that means so much to you — then sharing it with someone else. Notice how they’re never quite as blown away as you’d want them to be? That’s because all of our reactions to the outside world are steeped in the unique context of our nature and nurture.
This doesn’t mean that nothing can be done to improve happiness, and that we should just stop trying. It means that we need to recognize the limits of our own understanding of what makes people happy. We need to accept that happiness is triggered differently in different people, and even though we can observe macro-trends and generalities, those will be of little use when facing the unique situations of the individuals we interact with in our everyday lives.
I still think happiness has a place in decision-making. However, rather than asking, “Will this decision make me happy?” I prefer to ask myself “What does this decision mean to me?” and “How does this decision fit in with the person I want to become?” My theory is that as long as I stay true to who I want to be in my turbulent voyage toward my dreams, happiness will emerge from the depths to keep me company along the way. That’s what works for me, but you’re a different person, and I can only hope you’ll find what works for you.