Can happiness be pursued? Do we have to hunt down happiness before we can feel it? Is happiness a game of hide-and-seek whereby it’s constantly hiding and we’re constantly seeking? The pursuit of happiness in itself will make you unhappy. The concept of happiness is elusive since once you’ve caught it, it’s gone again. Instead of pursuing the vague concept of happiness, it would be more conducive to our mental health if we pursued meaning and fulfillment in life instead.
Recent research suggests that people who search for meaning and a sense of purpose have better mental health than their counterparts who search for happiness. Feelings of what we would characterize as happiness, such as feeling good after one’s sports team wins a match, is called “hedonic well-being.” This tends to be a temporary, fleeting emotion. Most probably gone by the next day, if it indeed lasts that long. If this is what we characterise as happiness, by definition it is something temporary. Activities such as volunteering in the community, raising children, writing a book may be less pleasurable in the short term and even frustrating; however, in the long term, they give people a sense of fulfillment, achievement and purpose. As human beings we should focus on attaining a sense of well-being and contentment. Feeling content with life is something that is stable and can last over time unlike the fleeting whims of happiness.
The American culture, which is infiltrating globally, places much importance on acquiring material goods and status. These pursuits go hand in hand with the pursuit of happiness. If one gets a new dress, one gets a sense of the hedonic well-being. We get a certain rush which we would describe as happy. However if we characterise this as happy and if there is so much pressure on us to feel this way all the time, we have to have more experiences that will give us this rush. However, we cannot perpetually live on a high. The pursuit of hedonic well-being is doomed to make us feel unhappy because no matter how many experiences we manage to have, we can never feel permanently elated and overjoyed. At some point we have to settle for feeling content.
Hedonic well-being and living a meaningful life, of course, can converge. We should be seeking the point where happiness and meaning intersect. Happiness should not be viewed as something that can cure all that is wrong. Also the pursuit of happiness should not denigrate feelings of sadness. The pursuit of happiness treats any form of suffering and upset as something terrible to be eliminated at all costs. A little bit of suffering, however, can help people grow and learn how to cope in difficult situations. It can strengthen personality and character. Sadness has become likened to a disease which everyone must be inoculated against with the happiness high. Living in a bubble of happiness is unrealistic and is not something that should be promoted and encouraged.
So where did the concept of pursuing happiness come from? Well it is a very marketable concept. We live in a day and age where we’re not supposed to suffer anything. If we have a headache, take Panadol, a cough, take cough medicine, an ache, go to the doctor. Everything is supposed to be curable even the down-in-the-dumps feeling, which everyone gets from time to time. We should all have perpetual grins on our faces. When this is what we’re told by the media, self-help books and positive psychology gurus, we have elevated expectations on how we’re supposed to feel. If our mood doesn’t match those expectations, which for the most part it doesn’t, then we feel a sense of heightened disappointment. This leads to confusion, self-absorption and rumination about how one’s life is not as happy as it ought to be. Happiness becomes like a commodity and if you fail to acquire it, there is something inherently wrong with you.
So should we all give up hopes of ever being happy? Absolutely not. As Viktor E. Frankl once said, “Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.” And it ensues as a by-product of having a meaningful life and feeling satisfied and content with what one has. Developing meaningful relationships, engaging in a job you feel is intrinsically satisfying, raising a family, volunteering in your community helps provide meaning and shelters you from the meaningless goals of achieving a hedonistic high.
Wang, S., S. (March 15, 2011). Is Happiness Overrated? The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved June 4, 2013, from http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704893604576200471545379388.html
Jeffries, S. (July 11, 2006). Why happiness is overrated. The Guardian. Retrieved June 4, 2013, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2006/jul/11/whyhappinessisoverrated
Image Credit: Colorful Sunflowers. (December 5, 2009). HD Wallpapers. Retrieved June 4, 2013, from http://www.hdwallpapers.in/colorful_sunflowers-wallpapers.html