The fiction of happiness

For many people, the quest for so-called "perfect" lives has led nowhere. A crushing, well-paid job brings nothing but stress and unhappiness. A perfect, curated family brings a gripping emptiness that cannot be spoken of in polite society.

Where was the wrong turn? What happened?


For most of human history, life was fleeting. Disease, war, childbirth and lack of medical science meant that death haunted every day. It is only in the last century that we have been fortunate to create a world that permits somewhat meaningful opportunities to age, learn, and grow. 

So why are so many people, particularly in rich societies, so miserable?

The problem lies in a myth. And that myth is that "the perfect life creates happiness."

And it also lies in a second myth: that happiness is the overriding purpose of life.

Happiness is a wonderful thing. But I question, very deeply question, whether it should be the center of our emotional lives, our career goals and our personal journeys.

The myth that "acquiring things" leads to happiness -- the TV, the car, the perfect spouse, the perfect children -- is demonstrably not true, and belied by the number of deeply unhappy people who seem to have everything.

The myth that happiness is enduring -- that once you have it, you can keep it and maintain it indefinitely -- is also demonstrably not true, and belied by every single person's experience on this planet.

Happiness, when it comes, is a wonderful thing.

We can and should welcome it, and nurture it. But happiness obviously competes for our emotional attention with a variety of other emotional states. Sometimes, happiness is no more lasting than a summer breeze.

And then, there is this additional point to make. Even if happiness were enduring, and provided an unending sense of bliss -- would it actually be an ethical thing to keep and maintain? These are times of political instability, great power imperialism and environmental calamity. We are alive at the time of the Anthropocene Extinction. Life on this planet is quite literally being wiped out. Could an ethical person reasonably choose to construct the perfect, blissful life while the rest of the world burns?

Is it an ethical choice to construct a Heaven, at a time when Hell increases its terrible jurisdiction?

Here are several other things I think about as the focus of my emotional life. I welcome happiness the way a stable master would welcome a new horse. But my priority is making the stable secure, in making it a welcome environment, not just for happiness, but for other things as well. 

Responsibility - Happiness needs to sit with a deep sense of responsibility.

There is the responsibility to ourselves, to support ourselves and to be kind to ourselves.

There is the responsibility to our loved ones -- not to hurt them, and to support them as well as we can.

There is the responsibility to strangers -- to be civil and courteous, and to support reasonable civic action that promotes a basic well being for all people.

This all sounds simple, but look around and see how many people have forgotten about these responsibilities. Looks to see the hatred in society between social groups. Look to see the hatred in families. And look to see how often you have forgotten to support your own emotional well being, and to be kind to yourself. Don't forget this most basic responsibility.

Mental adaptation - Adaptation is the rule of nature. Those things that cannot adapt will die off. Technology and globalization have increased social change to blistering speeds. Have we kept our minds fresh, so that we can adapt and learn new things?

When the mind becomes hardened, when it stops being curious, when it ceases to see the world in new ways, then it becomes fragile and brittle. A fierce wind will topple it.

Similarly, clinging to happiness at the expense of everything else creates vulnerability and can lead to delusion. People stop seeing reality. It is more important for the mind to adapt to changing circumstances, even if those circumstances are unpleasant, than to cling to a fiction that prioritizes happiness.

Self-knowledge - "Know yourself" is a truism, but for many people it is no more than that. How often do we really know not only who we are, but why we are here at this time? If we had to describe our personalities to someone else, what would we say? What are our deep goals, our deep desires, our deep insights about the world, about consciousness itself?

A person who can master herself is a person who can, and who will, defeat empires. Are we so fixated on our happiness that we have forgotten to look at who it is that wants to be happy, and why? 

Integrity and honor - What are the choices we are making every day to support and sustain our lives? Are they ones we would still be proud of years from now? Are the choices we are making consistent with a personal code that we live by?

Happiness is meaningless if we throw away our dignity to chase it. This chase becomes the root of addiction, or the pursuit of power at all costs.

Integrity and honor are in short supply these days. But it is the honorable who will preserve our civilization in unstable times.