July 12, 2019
Happiness by any other name
When you try to define happiness, you realize it’s non-permanent by nature. Happiness is the state of feeling you only acknowledge because it is fleeting. It is not permanent, so you know it exists as you can recount the times you were not happy.
Simply: You can be happy because at some point you were not happy.
But there is sometimes a bigger problem with the way we think of happiness these days–at least, many of us who try pursuing it:
We confuse happiness with euphoria.
The burst of emotion that comes with getting a new job, hearing good news, having mind-blowing sex is momentary. It’s in the domain of happiness as it’s an uplifting and positive reaction, but moreover it’s a response to a specific thing.
It’s a surge of good feeling.
It’s a rush of euphoria.
And when we follow that rush relentlessly, we make bad decisions, take needless risks, and further delude ourselves into making even worse decisions and taking even more needless risks.
We call this path The Pursuit of Happiness.
While the pursuit of happiness can be a noble and stable path in itself, our understanding of what happiness entails informs what that path looks and feels like. The pursuit of happiness with this skewed roadmap makes us thrill-seekers and discourages us from thinking ahead in a reliable, stable manner.
Live fast, die young.
You only live once.
None of these sentiments are necessarily bad. They are actually very profound–yes, that includes Drake’s YOLO, no matter how cringe-worthy it might be after 2015. But their interpretations are dangerous when you are desperate for stability and lasting positivity in your life–especially when you confuse a state of overall positive contentment with back-to-back short-lived bursts of joy.
In this wrong-headed path we make the mistake of thinking that we’re living in the moment like we’re contemporary followers of the ancient Eastern philosophers who developed the conception of Zen, or what we now refer to as “being Present [with a capital P]” or mindfulness. But that could not be further from the truth–at least, if your goals in life go further than the next day’s afternoon.
When we take the pursuit of happiness out of a mindful context and live in the moment precariously, we carefully cultivate snapshots of our euphoric highs and try to paste them together in a sequence and call it a feature film.
And trust me, it’s worse than the Emoji movie. I lived it…
I don’t know which came first: My consistently sour mood or my disenchantment with the constant struggle of what was, honestly, a pretty stable, pretty common way of life. I don’t think it matters which came first, just that I began looking for happiness in bouts of escape.
I would only begin to get less sour during the days before my paycheck. I would only be at ease among friends in social outings when we laughed the hardest, or when we were our drunkest. I did not care for the moments in between. When I wasn’t booked with clients or out with friends and my cats preferred their own company to mine and Netflix didn’t have anything I was interested in and I’d decided against day-drinking, I was alone with my own bitter self.
And bitter me looked at bitter me and hated me for being bitter.
It would have been better, in my opinion, to have been backed into a corner by some Big Bad. To have a foe to fight or a tight place from which to escape. But there was just an expanse of nothingness and no matter how far I ran in the timeless, matterless limbo. There was only myself to reckon with.
Because happiness for me meant having an abundance of access, plenty of quality friends on call at all times, and leisure time without end, I would necessarily be empty when any of those needs were unmet. And because I’m a working-class introvert who ironically abhors downtime, I would always be at odds with myself no matter what.
I would always be the ball at the end of a pendulum at either extreme rushing past the stability of relative stillness in either direction: endless joy or the depths of despair. No in-betweens.
A New Framework
When I stopped obsessing over happiness, I began to find balance. The frantic scavenging for happiness was an extreme response to a being in a negative place and desperately wanting to be out, but not having a proper understanding or roadmap for how to do that. When I stopped prioritizing happiness and stopped judging every action I took for its “happiness value”, I ironically began to feel better. My creativity flowed naturally and felt less forced. As I wasn’t grabbing for one extreme from the other extreme, the fast-paced momentum lessened. Happiness could flower because it was allowed to take root in what I realize I was searching for the whole time: peace.
In this metaphor, peace is a stillness. More realistically, taking in the constantly-moving human condition, it is a near-stillness. It goes with the flow and reacts with the appropriate amount of energy to whatever comes its way.
It can accept a rush of joy, but it doesn’t go looking for it as en end unto itself.
It can accept a bout of deep sadness, but it lifts itself out sustainably by addressing the root cause and not treating the symptoms with escapism.
Peace is the flexibility, fortitude, and resilience to say to the world: I exist and I will do so on my terms, no matter what you throw at me.
A Quick Critical Analysis of Peace
Like everything else, the path to peace has to be examined critically. It must be understood as a state that is not divorced from our material and emotional circumstances. It must also be understood as an ongoing process, and not a plateau that one climbs and achieves indefinitely.
In my experience, I recognized this in hindsight. It would be a lie to say I had a guidebook that told me everything I needed to do. And I would be lying if I claimed to know that my positive thinking made my external circumstances better, or vice-versa. It would also be wrong to say that since achieving this period of what I call peace, everything has been sunflowers and roses perpetually. Sorry if this sounds like a lot of caveats, but peace is as social a construct as anything else; it’s what we label periods of time marked by contentedness and circumstances that veer to the side of positivity.
My peace is the result of slowly creating calm in my life, being able to see myself progress, and being able to manifest with relative certainty the visions I am working toward. This peace is much sturdier and less fragile than fleeting moments of happiness because it doesn’t require me to be giddy and happy all the time–it allows me to be complex and whole.
That’s why I stopped hunting happiness and promote peace instead.