Like most Americans I am fascinated by the concept of happiness. Out of everything I have read on the subject, this brief article is perhaps the most profound. While I consider myself an artist of sorts and know that my best poetry has come out of deep sorrow, loneliness, or angst, I am not ready to embrace melancholia as a way of life just yet.
At the same time, I am not convinced by flowery appeals to happiness that imply that this elusive concept is no more than a mental drug we self-administer to blot out the cold and dark aspects of life. If only. Yet, this is presented as if it is obvious and many people excitedly concur without much critical thinking — which I see as evidence of the weakness of our education system rather than evidence of a compelling theory. This is not to say that we have no control over our own happiness — I agree that we do indeed — but my skepticism rears its head when I picture a starving person meditating to suppress the hunger pangs instead of doing the logical thing and searching for food. While anger and sadness are all in the mind, hunger is not. This is where the argument becomes absurd: No individual who has ever experienced starvation could ever reduce happiness to mindfulness alone. The mind cannot even function without nourishment, after all.
Moreover, once we have our nourishment, shelter, and other basic needs met, it would be a mistake to strive toward happiness as if it were at the top of one’s bucket list. Happiness, in my view, is a reward. Like all rewards, if one is singularly focused on it, it loses its luster. Instead, the focus should be on the behavior or task that leads to the reward — intrinsic motivation. That way no one can fail to be happy but only fail to meet the conditions for happiness. My concern is that to view happiness as a strictly spiritual or extrinsic endeavor would make happiness both selfish and contrived. Whatever happened to the kind of happiness that comes unannounced after one has exhausted all other feelings?
Far from taking a cynical view on the subject, my humble belief is that happiness is ultimately stronger than the various emotions we associate with psychological pain. Unlike physical pain, which everyone experiences without exception, psychological pain strikes some much harder than others. Why does it harm some much worse than others? Why does it exist at all? Some thinkers, such as Krishnamurti, question whether it is inevitable. Could it be merely the side effect of an over-active mammalian brain’s inability to differentiate a real threat from a perceived one? Could it stem from the need to conceive permanency where there is none as a means of control? To attach to objects, people, and animals as if they were extensions of oneself?
I am not qualified to answer these questions, but I find them a lot more interesting than the dull, endless journey into what makes a person happy.