Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony. —Mahatma Gandhi
Our little ones regularly tell me that I’m mean. Typically, that accusation comes when I tell them to go to bed, or don’t let them play with knives, or deny them the fourth cookie. In their view, I am impeding their path to happiness. For all their short little lives, other people have been focused on making them happy: grandparents, teachers, babysitters, etc. They are told in a thousand different ways that their happiness is what matters. Then, Kat and I come along and ruin by insisting that they take a bath, or not play in the litter box, or tell them to stop climbing the walls in the hallway (not kidding). We are so very mean.
I’m rather sure that when Thomas Jefferson included that line about the “pursuit of happiness,” he didn’t realize the level of horror he was unleashing on us a little more than two centuries later. We have come to take his words as a mandate: we must pursuit happiness. We think that we are not being fulfilled as individuals if we are not pursuing happiness. Oh, and by the way, it is our own individual happiness that matters. If your pursuit of happiness interferes with my pursuit of happiness then what you are doing is wrong. This is where our current social thought process has taken us.
Could it be that we have become so incredibly focused on being happy that we’ve lost sight of all the other things in life that matter? Does happiness need to be our highest priority or might there be more to life?
America, The Happy
Such obsessiveness over whether we are happy is apparently a uniquely American thing that doesn’t occur in other societies. Ruth Whippman, an English writer, journalist, and documentarian currently living in California, wrote a rather interesting book, AMERICA THE ANXIOUS: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks. You can get a taste of her book in this article on Vox. Part of the motivation for writing her book was the experience of coming from a society where happiness isn’t given a second thought and being tossed into the heart of a culture that is wholly obsessed with how happy they are. What she notices is that, as hard as we try, we’re really not any happier. In the Vox article she says:
To an outsider, it can sometimes feel as though the entire population has a nationwide standardized happiness exam to take and everyone is frantically cramming the night before to get a good grade. Like a stony-faced “that’s hilarious” after a joke in place of laughter — another mildly unnerving staple of conversation in this country — it appears that somewhere along the line, the joy has been sucked out of American happiness.
Americans are obsessed with being happy, I am convinced, because we somehow see it as part of our national birthright. We look at our lives and if we don’t think we’re happy then, somehow, our country is letting us down. Certainly, the Republican candidate for President whose slogan is “Make America Great Again,” enjoys such ridiculous appeal despite all that is inappropriate about him because what he’s actually saying is, “Make American Happy Again.” People respond to that desire to be happy, even if it denies happiness to others.
Our Entitlement Philosophy
Because we, as Americans feel entitled to being happy, we give that feeling a priority and refuse to accept any other emotion for very long. Sadness is not acceptable. Depression requires medication, as does anxiety. If we are angry then we “have issues.” One who is overly enthusiastic is “out of touch,” but one who is embarrassed or feeling guilty needs to “get in touch with their inner self.” We look at happiness as our diety-delivered right and refuse to accept anything else.
One of the most ridiculous yet widely followed and often quoted statements in history comes from Ayn Rand:
Achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness, not pain or mindless self-indulgence, is the proof of your moral integrity, since it is the proof and the result of your loyalty to the achievement of your values.
Can you see how that self-centered piece of horseshit is guiding the entitlement philosophy of an entire political party? Rand, and those who blindly follow her, put one’s personal happiness as a moral imperative above things such as being kind, helping others, compassion, caring, and empathy. When we become so singularly focused 0n achieving a state of happiness, when our purpose in life is to please ourselves first, we end up with policies that are anti-women because that infringes on the happiness of the men making the laws. If our integrity hinges on an imaginary emotional state of bliss, then we develop hate toward others whose conditions of poverty make us look bad. When we depend on the unachievable as proof of our values, we then question and criticize the values of others.
Creating A Happy Culture
I’m sitting here looking at Little Man’s report card for the first term. He’s in second grade. Back in the cultural stone age of when I went to school, second grade was the last year we received the grossly over-generalized grades of S for satisfactory and U for unsatisfactory. Either we understood the material or we didn’t. No gray area. By contrast, the grading scale for Little Man’s class is as follows:
- 4 = Exceeding Standards
- 3 = Meeting Standards
- 2 = Working Towards Standards
- 1 = Not Meeting Standards
There are a tremendous number of 4s on this report, which pleases Kat. However, as Little Man was going over the report card with me this past week, he wasn’t happy. “Threes aren’t good enough,” he told me. “Threes mean I’m just the same as everyone else. 4s mean I’m better than most the people in my class.”
“So, three isn’t good enough?” I asked.
“I wish there was a 5 to show that I’m the best,” he answered. “That would really make me happy.”
Good god, we’re raising an over-achiever. Yet, this is how Little Man defines whether or not he is happy. S for satisfactory would never be enough for him. Exceeding standards isn’t enough for him. This social culture has convinced him that he needs to be on top, leaving everyone else behind, in order to be happy. The kid is likely in for a world of disappointment. Yet, if he demonstrated any lesser amount of determination then he would be labeled as an underachiever and probably considered uncooperative.
The Curse of Mindful Empowerment
In the world of creating happiness, there are two buzz words that come up a lot. One is empowerment, the other is mindfulness. On their own, both words can have some really positive meaning. Yet, as we’ve taken them to become significant parts of our push to find what makes us happy, we might have taken both words a little too far. I like what Ms. Whippman says about empowerment:
As a rule, “empowerment” appears to be the consolation prize for those of us who will never have any actual power, and you can safely assume that no one in any position of genuine authority will be joining in. Creating a Tumblr of photos of your post–C-section wobbling and scarred naked stomach? Empowering! Creating a Tumblr of photos of your post-prostate surgery rectum? Not so much, senator.
Mindfulness requires being completely focused on whatever one is doing right at this moment. For example, if I was fully mindful, I would be totally consumed with writing the article and probably miss the fact that I have water boiling on the stove. Yet, the Mindfulness movement is so large that it has even made the cover of TIME (January, 2014). Should one make a trip to mindfulness.org, the home base of all things mindful, one sees articles such as The 7 Qualities of Mindfulness Trained in the Body Scan and Take a Mindful Hike. Here, happiness comes through hyper-attentiveness on a specific object or thought, not letting the mind wander, and thereby avoiding all things negative. That sentence is an over-simplification, of course, but again it is pushing one to focus on themselves to the exclusion of other things and other people around them.
I’m not anti-self-help, mind you. Rather, I think that when we improve ourselves it should be so that we are better able to help others and our community. Society only works when we are involved outside ourselves.
Going About This The Wrong Way
Happiness is elusive. To the extent that we spend all our time, all our motivation, in the pursuit of a condition we often cannot even define, we end up making our lives miserable. Gallup does an annual Positive Emotions Survey that essentially matters how happy people are. They poll adults in 140 countries and ask the following questions:
• Did you feel well-rested yesterday?
• Were you treated with respect all day yesterday?
• Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?
• Did you learn or do something interesting yesterday?
With all the effort Americans put into being happy, one might be tempted to think that we’re at the top of the list. We’re not. The US isn’t even in the top ten. Want to know who is the happiest? People in these countries, scale based on 100 being the happiest:
El Salvador 82
Costa Rica 81
One doesn’t need to look long to realize that none of the countries listed are likely to be engaged in things like empowerment and mindfulness. They’re not doing yoga and attending seminars on How To Be A Better You. Yet, they are consistent, year after year, happier than we are. We’re still in the top 25, mind you, but that people in lesser industrialized countries with fewer opportunities, higher unemployment, and lower wages would still be happier than we are should give us a hint that we’re probably going about this the wrong way.
Perhaps Happy Isn’t What We Need
One of the lessons I learned from going to church every waking moment of my youth is that no one promises us happiness. In fact, we’re pretty much assured that happiness isn’t going to happen all that often. If Poppa were sitting here with me this morning, and perhaps he is, he would likely use this scripture to make his point:
Philippians 4:11-13New International Version (NIV)
11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength. [Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.]
Look back up at the questions asked for the Positive Emotions Index. Did you sleep well? The question isn’t whether you slept as long as you want. Neither does it involve the type of bedding on which one sleeps. Simply sleeping well is sufficient and being content with that is more likely to leave us feeling satisfied. Were you treated with respect all day yesterday? That’s going to change from day to day and perhaps even moment to moment. Yet, to the degree we can find contentedness, not happiness, in our situation, regardless of how others treat us, we are more likely to feel better about ourselves.
Now, look what happens when we focus questions outward. Did you help someone else smile or laugh today? Chances are, if you helped someone smile, you were probably smiling also. It is easier to feel good when we are helping others feel good. Did you teach someone something new and interesting today? Does not improving someone else’s life not improve your own at the same time? When we are content, we might just increase our happiness because contentedness allows us to focus outward rather than inward.
We Are Not Cocoons
One would think that the pursuit of happiness is a virtue, a positive character trait to be admired. Unfortunately, Americans, in their obsession to find happiness at any cost, have made that pursuit negative. Too often, our happiness comes at the expense of others. We focus so fully on what we think might make us feel better that we lose sight of what we could do to make the world feel better.
If we were some type of larvae that lives in a cocoon with no interaction with or obligation to the outside world, then sure, focusing on our own happiness might be totally appropriate. We do not live in cocoons, though. We are part of a vibrant, loud, emotional, and needy society. When we focus on our own happiness to the exclusion of those around us, we ultimately do harm to the whole.
Instead, perhaps we should work more to find contentedness and focus our intentions and actions on helping others. Something tells me that when we stop pursuing happiness so hard it might just show up on its own.