If you opened this article, you’re probably wondering what sort of nihilistic entropy might motivate someone to ever say, "We should stop looking for happiness."
I’m not a nihilist. I’m not a pessimist. I do not (yet) believe that humanity is doomed, nor do I assign a meaninglessness to life that I think cancels out the worth of pursuing joy. But when I say the following statement, I mean it: I think that we focus too much on being happy.
Why shouldn’t we do this?
It’s because we can’t control our happiness.
Take a moment to think about this. We—I say this generally, but studies have shown it is true of Americans especially—are obsessed with happiness. We chase it endlessly, like jonesing for a high, trying anything and everything to reach it. Would I be happier if I was thinner? If I was richer? If I was smarter, more successful, more talented if I had more lovers or friends? We try and we try, but the thing we forget about happiness is that, more than anything, it is a transient state. Emotionally, it occupies us for only a while at a time. Perhaps we’re not unhappy, but most of the time, a person in their neutral and natural state is not stewing in unadulterated bliss, no matter how great their life is.
So why do we act like that’s achievable? Do we really believe this?
Let me tell you a secret about my life: I'm happy.
Right at this moment, right now, I’m as happy as I could be expected to be. I am comfortable on the couch, in two blankets and toasty socks to keep my feet warm. I have Tostitos and Pepsi and The West Wing on Netflix in the background. I am not under duress. I have my apartment to myself and a full day of weekend left. And yet, if I could alter the state of my life, in this moment, I would.
The reason I would is because there is more to me right now than the momentary happiness I feel. I am not unhappy, but I am unfocused and insufficient. I know the next several minutes will be all right, but I also know that my To Do list gets longer every day and I’m not yet in a place where I can finish what I feel I need to in order to get my life together. I have greater goals that, for the time being, remain out of the reach of realization. I haven’t done what I want to have done. I’m not where I want to be. Outside of this moment, outside of this contentful now, I am dissatisfied. I am unfulfilled. I want the rest of life to look different than it does.
Why should I be aiming for happiness? All considerations aside, I’ve already got that—and it’s not helping me be the self I wish to be.
Perhaps it’s not really happiness, or bliss, or instant gratification we should be looking for. Perhaps we should give ourselves more credit than that. Isn’t it human nature to want more? I used to think happiness was the best one can wish for. And in a sense, it still is: when one has nothing else, if at least one were happy, it might be enough. But given the option, I want more for myself than just momentary contentment. I don’t just want to feel better, I want to be better; do better; live greater. I’d like to be satisfied not just with how I am but with who I am. I want to be fulfilled as a human being, even more so than I want to be happy all of the time.
We as idealists and believers want to think that happiness is an achievable end. But we forget that it is not the end-all be-all. We forget that happiness is not the only noble feeling. We forget that our lives would feel a little emptier without sometimes being angry, or inconsolable, or afraid, or melancholy, impatient, frustrated, longing, shattered, in pain.
It is the full spectrum of human experience that makes us feel real, grounded, worthy—like we care about things, like we have been through things, like every hardship we have suffered in the past has not been for nothing but rather been a piece of the path through which we can become our best selves. All of this begs the question: if we do not strive for happiness, what should we strive for?
I suggest aiming instead for fulfillment. We all want to be happy, but no one can be so all the time. What we can be is satisfied, gratified, convinced that we are on the right path for ourselves, even if that path bears hardships or that role is troubling. I ask you, which do you want more: to be happy meaninglessly? Or to know, even when you are sad, that you are who you ought to be?
Personally, I pick the latter. I think it is time to let go of trying to be happy for every minute of every hour, and stop needlessly running ourselves aground in desperation if we can’t sustain bliss for the entire length of one’s days. So often we are begged to ask: Would I be happy if I were thinner? If I were richer? If I were smarter, more successful, more talented, if I had more lovers or friends? Ask instead not whether you are sufficiently happy, but whether you are sufficient. Ask not if you would be happier if you were different, but rather if you are comfortable with being yourself.
Stop trying to be happy. Start trying to a person that, in any state, you would still be proud to be.