The pursuit of happiness is enshrined as an inalienable human right in the constitutions of many of the world’s liberal democracies. This is right and good but what exactly is happiness and what does it mean to pursue it? Is this pursuit a good thing?
I have always found that pursuits of any kind bring only momentary rewards. If happiness is the end goal of a pursuit, then I wonder if it is worth the effort at all. All my life I have been a collector. As a child I collected action figures. As an adult, I collect books and records. And I have always been a completist – if I have one piece in a collection, I must have them all. I know very well the thrill of obtaining the latest prized part in some series or other and placing it alongside what you have already collected so far, watching the collection grow.
This strikes me as an appropriate metaphor for the pursuit of happiness as we understand it in the modern, Western sense. We learn to believe that happiness is a gradual process that involves the step-by-step acquisition of certain things or achievements. And once we have the whole collection, then we will be happy. Get an education, get a job, accumulate some savings, get married, buy a house, have children, take an overseas holiday every year – once you have all that, happiness will come.
While there is nothing wrong with the accumulation of things in and of itself, is this what happiness is? I look back on every collection I have ever assembled. The act of collecting was itself great fun and completing the collection always brought a feeling of gratification. But, as time went on, the collection would lose its novelty and I would move on to something else. The same sense of heady acquisitiveness would fill me as I started on the new set of toys, books, albums, whatever, and the finished collection would fade in appeal. It seems that it’s the same with anything we feel we need to acquire in order to attain happiness. Doesn’t it always seem that there is always one more thing you need? “Once I’ve done that, then I will be happy.”
“As soon as I pay off my home loan, I can relax.”
“Once I have my degree, I’ll be happy.”
“When I find the woman/ man of my dreams, then I’ll be happy.”
It does to me. By the time I was in my mid-30s, I had acquired almost everything that outwardly I was supposed to have to be happy. I had a decent job, I was a homeowner, I had a car. But was I happy? Not really. My job made me feel stifled and never quite paid enough no matter how many increases I asked for; my home and car were financial burdens. There was always something else I needed to reach happiness – a better job, more money and on and on.
This is the pursuit of happiness that our governments guarantee us, that our liberal values enshrine. To me that doesn’t sound like we’re getting a very good deal.
So what am I suggesting? Overthrow the system? Fight the power? Get off the grid? Opt out of the rat race? None of these actions will guarantee happiness either. What I am suggesting is that happiness should not be a pursuit at all. If happiness is an inalienable human right, then it is only because it is at everyone’s disposal at any time. And attaining it requires nothing at all except a decision to do so.
That sounds all too easy, doesn’t it? If everyone can just decide to be happy then why are so many in the world miserable? I’m not talking here about people living in abject poverty or eking a meagre, moment-to-moment existence in war zones. They have a reason to be unhappy. I’m referring to the world’s middle and wealthier classes – those people who have access to all the physical, intellectual and emotional amenities they could require and are still unhappy. If you have enough food, you have a roof over your head, are making yourself useful in some sort of gainful work and have the means to indulge in whatever entertainment or hobby takes your fancy, then why would you be unhappy? “Because, I’m in debt,“ you say. “Because the government is corrupt.” “Because that deal didn’t come through.” “Because my relationship is unfulfilling.”
We can always find reasons to be unhappy, so why aren’t we looking for reasons to be happy? What if it all comes down to our locus of control? Are we allowing our emotions to be controlled by external factors or are we controlling our emotions from within? As long as you are under the impression that achieving or attaining something outside of yourself will make you happy, you will keep missing out on happiness because you will keep finding that everything you attain falls short of satisfying you and so you need the next thing and the next thing.
The philosopher Alan Watts expressed this idea so well in many ways. One of the best and most succinct of his quotes in this regard is: “The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.”
Worldly wealth and earthly trappings are fine – there is absolutely a place for them. My point is that sustainable happiness does not flow from them. Doesn’t happiness come only from self-love, self-acceptance and the understanding that nothing outside of you determines how you feel? Should it not be that your outside world – your belongings, your environment, your achievements, your relationships, etc, are merely an expression of what is inside you? I suspect it is but most of us are living as if it is the opposite way around, that what we have around us defines us and determines our emotional and mental states.
My position has changed substantially from where I was a few years ago. I no longer have the job, the home or many of the belongings that I used to. I left the job to go freelance and take control of my time. I left the home and I sold a good number of the belongings I had. Now, having left the safe harbour of permanent employment for the choppy waters of freelance work and the life of the artist, I can honestly say that I have seldom been happier in my adult life.
I am now in a state of transition, my life is in flux. The beautiful thing is that it has always been – all life is always in a state of constant flow and change. I am just now becoming aware of it. All the permanence I had before was illusory, it could have changed at any moment. But I was always me and I still am – and for the first time in my life I am seeing that was all I ever really needed. No pursuit was ever necessary.