What do you want in life? You may want to spend more time with your family. Or have a more rewarding and stable job. Or maybe find your better half. Or improve your health. However, why do you really want those things?
Your answer is likely to be: to be happy!
At this point it is worth asking: are you sure these things will make you happy?
An experiment conducted at the Imperial College of Science revealed that we are not very accurate in predicting the intensity of our emotions and feelings. We tend to think that positive events will make us very happy, but then we discovered that’s not true. That would lead us to a fruitless search for happiness that would probably end up leading to dissatisfaction, frustration, and disappointment.
Seeking happiness in the wrong direction
Our culture is so obsessed with seeking happiness that we assume that the desire to be happy needs no justification. We take it for granted. We think that happiness is good because being happy is good. However, the philosopher Nat Rutherford questions whether it is valid and sensible to build our lives based on this circular reasoning.
“In the modern world, happiness is the closest thing we have to a summum bonum, the highest good from which all other goods flow. Following this logic, unhappiness becomes summum malum, the greatest evil to avoid,” he wrote.
However, a study developed at the University of California showed that the obsessive pursuit of happiness is associated with an increased risk of depression. Psychologists at the University of Denver, also found that people who valued happiness the most reported being less happy under stressful conditions, compared to those who did not place as much importance on happiness.
Therefore, probably one of our biggest mistakes in the pursuit of happiness is worrying too much about being happy, to the point of judging all aspects of our life according to their contribution to that idealized emotional state.
We are more concerned with how to seek happiness than with trying to understand what it really is and to what extent it is a desirable goal in life. We develop a limited and too pragmatic conception of happiness focused more on the search for positive emotions than on meaning.
How much are we willing to sacrifice to be happy?
In 1989 the philosopher Robert Nozick posed us a dilemma: Imagine for a moment that there is a machine that can give us everything we want. It could fulfill all our wishes. We could be great writers, become renowned inventors, or successful entrepreneurs. We could live the life we have always dreamed of, the one that would make us happy. However, that machine is actually a simulator, so we would have to live submerged in a tank with electrodes connected to our brain.
Would you connect to that machine to be happy?
Psychologists from the universities of Groningen and La Soborna presented the same scenario to 249 people. The vast majority of the participants decided not to connect to the machine, rejecting the supposed happiness it offered them. The possibility of taking a daily pill that would generate pleasant experiences for them throughout their lives only convinced half of the people. Instead, nearly everyone chose to take a pill that would improve their physical, cognitive, and social functioning.
This experiment reveals that although we are immersed in the pursuit of happiness, we are not really willing to sacrifice everything to have pleasant experiences. Our deepest “self” actually aspires to a meaningful life that goes far beyond happiness and that is often linked to effort.
Therefore, although happiness is desirable, it is not the only desirable thing. Understanding it will help us to get rid of the “tyranny of happiness”, so that we stop obsessively seeking it, losing it along the way.
Accepting suffering, an indispensable condition for finding happiness
For Epicurus, happiness consists in seeking pleasure and avoiding pain and suffering. According to this Greek philosopher, the sustained absence of pain gives us peace of mind or ataraxia, a state in which we are “at peace with ourselves.” However, a fulfilling and satisfying life goes beyond balancing that counter of pleasure and pain.
In fact, Friedrich Nietzsche reminds us that we are often willing to suffer or face unpleasant situations if we are sure of obtaining a reward. “Man does not repudiate suffering as such, he even seeks it, as long as a meaning is shown to him,” he wrote.
The vision of a happiness that depends fundamentally on our moods, which are usually fleeting and influenced by circumstances, inevitably condemns us to live in a state of dissatisfaction pursuing an unattainable chimera. Life, even that of the luckiest people, does not escape pain, loss, disappointment, illness, sadness and loneliness. Pain is an inevitable consequence of being alive.
However, when suffering has a purpose or we find meaning in it, it can be more bearable. In fact, happiness and suffering are not mutually exclusive but rather two sides of the same coin. One does not exist without the other, so fleeing from suffering will not bring us closer to happiness.
How to seek happiness through eudaimonia?
Instead of happiness, Aristotle preferred to speak of eudaimonia. Although many translate this word as “happiness”, it is actually a concept more akin to “human flourishing” or “meaningful balance.”
Aristotle’s vision of eudaimonia is complex because it not only encompasses what gives us pleasure but also individual satisfaction, excellence, commitment and moral virtue. Unlike happiness, eudaimonia is not the result of our mental states – which are often fickle – but rather of leading a meaningful life.
If we apply this idea to the pursuit of happiness, we can understand that the key is not to ask ourselves what makes us happy but rather what fulfills us, allows us to grow and is meaningful. The answers to these questions do not usually lead to epicurean and momentary pleasure but are projected into the future, giving meaning to our lives.
“No life worth living should meet the standard set by the Epicurean or utilitarian views of happiness, so its modern followers are destined to be disillusioned by the imperfections of human life,” wrote Rutherford.
Therefore, flourishing as a person through meaningful actions could be the secret of happiness since it would come as a result of it. Aiming for eudaimonia will allow us to embrace our imperfections and prosper despite them, finding the meaningful in our life. Happiness will be a logical result. Therefore, perhaps we should not ask ourselves what makes us happy, but what is meaningful to us.
Rutherford, N. (2021) Why our pursuit of happiness may be flawed. In: BBC.
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