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The Hell with Happiness

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Sometimes you just feel one of those old-cranky-guy-posts coming on.

Over the past few months, I've spent a bit of time reading and thinking about happiness. I've read a couple of books, one of which was "How Pleasure Works". I've read a couple of WSJ articles, and participated in a couple of discussions on various boards.

Plus I'm a happy guy! Except for today, when I'm a bit cranky.

For anybody who has studied the subject, happiness is about experiences, social interaction, and expanding your horizons. It's not about possessions or status -- although we seem to keep thinking it is.

What's bugging me is the increasing number of people who seem to chase happiness just for the purpose of being happy. And that's crap.

This is like the folks who chase money as an ends to itself. If you choose, money is a great way of keeping score -- but you don't play games by watching the scoreboard. The score is just a byproduct of playing a great game, not an end to itself. I think we've all played games with folks who only care about the score, and they're not very pleasant to be around.

Happiness is about experiences, yes, but experiences are about meaning, the value and definition we assign to things. One guy walks up a mountain in the rain because he had a flat tire and is looking for help. Another guy takes the same walk in the same conditions because he is a hiker. The hiker is having a great time: the flat tire guy is having a miserable experience. The walk, the weather -- even the circumstances -- are not as important as the meaning we assign to them.

I read about kids in their 20s who are concerned about work-life balance. What the hell? Look, you're 20! Odds are you have a few decades left in life. You think perhaps it wouldn't be too much trouble to dedicate yourself to something larger than yourself -- your job, your family, your faith? Anything besides you? Is this too much for the rest of society to ask?

For some reason -- and this is still beyond me -- folks of all ages seem to think of themselves in little buckets. This is the piece of me that goes to work. This is the little piece of me that visits my family. This is the little piece of me I share with my friends.

When is there time for me?

Look, I'm not arguing that you shouldn't adapt yourself to different situations, but geesh! All of those folks? They're just you. If you keep thinking of yourself as fourteen different little pieces, why of course it's gong to be tough to stay happy. You've got fourteen different personalities in there to please.

You're your own football team.

Let's be real: I know that many of you work at jobs you do not like. And for you westerners, I'm sure that sitting behind a desk or at a terminal or machine is not what you wanted in life. But guess what? Life is about making the best choices you can right now, not sitting around wishing your life away. No matter how bad you have it, trust me, you wouldn't want to be living your life in the year 1200. And the people 500 years from now will be leading even better lives. Some things we can change. Other things we can't. Either way, whining and complaining doesn't do anything except waste energy.

No matter how painful the choice, you always have the option of walking away from your job. The guy in 1200 was most likely a slave who would have been killed if he left.

On the other side of the coin, no matter what your situation is or how many great experiences you are having, you either make decisions and choices that give your life meaning or it's all just a waste of time. I hear taking Cocaine is a great experience -- but even if it were completely healthy? It's an awful way to lead your life.

And I guess that's what bugs me the most about these discussions about happiness: the idea that we are abdicating who we are -- the choices we own about our lives -- either to others or to this idea of "happiness". It seems either we are determined to be unhappy by wishing our lives away; or unhappy by chasing empty experiences that lead us to a pointless existence.

Science is really good at telling us what things are, and not so good at telling us why. Saying happiness is about experiences is true, yet it leads us to chase experiences instead of meaning, and that's terrible. Happiness is a byproduct of other things, other much more meaningful things. It is not an end to itself. At least not in a healthy person.

Be happy! I love happiness. But the hell with pursuing happiness for its own sake. You get happy by making something out of your life, not chasing experiences.

So buck up. Rich or poor, go make some tough choices about your life. Trust me: you'll enjoy those experiences a lot more if they're part of a larger narrative of who you choose to be instead of just an end to themselves.

There. I feel better. Hey kids! Get off my lawn! (grin)

1 Comment

Maybe short term pleasures just translate to merriness. Including experiences.
Happiness could then be the ability of coping in the absence of merriness.

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This page contains a single entry by DanielBMarkham published on October 27, 2010 8:32 AM.

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