Updated: Sep 13, 2020
The pursuit of happiness is perhaps the most prominent modus operandi of the masses. We as humans are naturally wired to want pleasure and avoid or reject pain and suffering. This hardwired disposition manifests in the moulding of much of our lives into the pursuit of happiness. On the surface it makes total sense. Who amongst us would not want to be happy? We often arrange our lives and circumstances in attempt to render ourselves happy.
Unfortunately, when closely examined, this relentless pursuit is often the very act that stands as the birthplace of our suffering – our unhappiness. On some level, the constant pursuit of happiness just reinforces it as something that we do not have, as something that exists ‘out there’.
Too often we are communicated that the attainment of happiness must be achieved, and that when found, tightly held onto and never let go of. As we advance in society and technology, the frequency and amplitude of this message is compounded – just take a look at social media. We are saturate with images of our friends, family members and acquaintances, or exhibiting their lives and the joy and bliss that surround them. It is rare to find the true grit and realness of life presented in a raw way amongst all these platforms.
Let’s take a look at some biological roots to our predicament.
There are both biological and environmental factors that play into our deep-seated striving towards happiness.
Our brain and mind has evolved over countless millennia, and it is the worrying mind that survived. Let me explain. Back when brute survival was the main game of life, and our immediate environment was fraught with predators that could end our existence at any moment, it was the cautious and worrisome that survived. It was the ones who thought that the rustle in the bush could be a deadly monster that avoided any probable peril. The minds that paid no attention to these possible warning signs were the ones who did not survive and pass on their traits to the generations that follow.
This mindset makes total sense when one finds themselves in a primitive world whose environment is littered with the very real threat of imminent danger; but no so much in today’s advanced society. Our minds are wired in this way from a very early aeon. To try and impose the idea that we are by default, supposed to be happy 24/7 on top of the objectivity of our biology only seeks to complicate and compound our unhappiness when we in anything other than a state of joy.
An unsubstantiated expectation to be happy 24/7 serves in quite its opposite purpose: it makes us unhappy. By chasing and expecting happiness in this regard, we live in a state of resistance, unwilling to show total embrace and acceptance to the movements of life. We have been sold the idea of obtaining constant happiness and in doing so, have rendered ourselves infant in regards to regulating and dealing with the movements of the mind and emotions.
East meets West
Mindfulness practices that borrow heavily from Eastern philosophy, psychology and Religion have become prominent in Western society in the past few decades – and with good reason. These practices do not put the cart before the horse – that is to say- they are practices that help us deal with whatever emotion or thoughts may be presenting themselves, allowing them to flow on their own accord, rather than encouraging us to attempt to forcefully create and hold certain favourable emotions or movement of mind. The latter has become the norm in the modern age, and as previously mentioned, this falsity has only been compounded with the appearance and increased usage of social media, almost as if an Ego 2.0 has been created – only this one has more control over what is shown and communicated.
Our need becomes to resist what is in order to strive for what we fortify as not being there. We try to fit square pegs into round holes by attempting to make an impermanent phenomenon into an eternal state of being. Happiness, in this regard, should not (in my humble opinion) supersede meaning, and a life full of depth and richness - full of it's peaks and valleys, it's natural dynamic movements.
Too often we may find ourselves desperately trying to hold on to joy and happiness when it arises, thus destroying it in the process.
I will leave this post with two quotes from prominent clinical Psychologist D. Jordan Peterson, who eloquently and powerfully describes the misguided pursuit of happiness, and Zen teacher Adyashanti, who succinctly describes the paradox of the pursuit:
"It’s all very well to think the meaning of life is happiness, but what happens when you’re unhappy? Happiness is a great side effect. When it comes, accept it gratefully. But it’s fleeting and unpredictable. It’s not something to aim at – because it’s not an aim. And if happiness is the purpose of life, what happens when you’re unhappy" - J. Peterson
"The greatest happiness is to be free from the constant desire to be happy." - Adyashanti