“If you want to be happy, be” was Tolstoy’s simple advice. But it seems that we’re forgetting how to be, and how to be happy.
At every turn are how-to happiness books, articles, TV and radio programmes, videos, and websites. There are happiness institutes, camps, clubs, classes, cruises, workshops, and retreats. Universities are adding courses in Happiness Studies.
Fast growing professions include happiness counselling, happiness coaching, life-lift coaching, joyology, and happiness science. Personal happiness is the new religion, and everyone is flogging it. Only the bravest are not being bullied into cheering up or at least shutting up.
But a society of happichondriacs is not necessarily a positive sign. Einstein said “Happiness never appeared to me as an absolute aim. I am even inclined to compare such moral aims to the ambitions of a pig. The ideals that have lighted my way are Kindness, Beauty, and Truth.”
If we have become pigs at the happiness trough, it is understandable. All higher systems of meaning have withered. Life purpose has dwindled to feeling good. Innocence, the lifeblood of happiness, is obsolete. We live on cultural soil ideally suited for depression.
The highest forms of happiness have always been experienced and expressed as love. But happiness has lost most of social, spiritual, moral, and intellectual anchors and become a form of emotional masturbation. The most common way of measuring happiness today is in terms of personal satisfaction.
But, as artist Salvador Dali knew, total satisfaction can actually be a major obstacle to happiness: “There are days when I think I’m going to die from an overdose of satisfaction.”
To preserve the rarity value of life’s gifts, one must resist wrapping heaven around oneself. Keeping paradise at a distance, yet within reach, is a much better way of staying alive. People who have it all must learn the art of flirting with deprivation.
In warning that “America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy,” author John Updike was referring to the superficial mass happiness that prevails when economics successfully conspires to define our existence. I profit, therefore I am. To be happy, gulp something. Pay later.
Novelist J. D. Salinger was so unnerved by the happiness conspiracy that he confessed “I’m a kind of paranoic in reverse. I suspect people are plotting to make one happy.” The wrong type of happiness is worse than no happiness at all.
When normality fails us, as it has today, happiness becomes a form of protest. Some disillusioned folks are adopting society proofing as a technique for protecting themselves and their families. Radical groups are even resorting to culture jamming.
I never knew how measly my own happiness was until one day in 1978 when I found myself stranded in a remote western Tanzanian village. Thus it did not surprise me that an African nation, namely Nigeria, was found recently to be the world’s happiest country. The study of happy societies is awakening us to the importance of social connectedness, spiritual depth, simplicity, modesty of expectations, gratitude, patience, touch, music, movement, play, down time, and a certain amount of doing without.
We usually hitch our emotional wagons to ego, ambition, personal power, excess, and the spectacular. But all of these are surprising flops when it comes to happiness. Today’s success is becoming a blueprint for life failure.
The greatest irony of today’s blitz on personal happiness is that genuine happiness is never strictly personal. For happiness to be mature and heart-felt, it must be shared, whether by those around us or by tomorrow’s children. If not, happiness can be downright depressing.