Happiness. What a slippery concept.
It’s what we’re all after, right? (At least that’s what I’m told.) But what is it? What do you imagine when you think of happiness?
Perhaps you conjure up notions of a distant beach-side setting, endless relaxation, a gourmet meal, and fine wine flowing like the Thames.
At the very least, if you are invested in traditional notions of happiness, some form of leisure probably comes to mind — some comfortable scenario devoid of all bad feeling.
In this post, I’m going to propose that we must disband ourselves from this ideal of happiness. We must recognize it as a lackluster, mind-dulling destination that cannot truly exist.
Understanding Our False Ideal of Happiness
When we dream of happiness, we dream of a place that is free of suffering — a place without anxiety, guilt, mood swings, and melancholy.
Considering our own lives, we anticipate the day when our worries and mental battles will subside — a day when a golden age of purely positive mental states can ensue, a day when we cease to have any reason to feel sorrow, tension, and pain.
I don’t wish to upset any of you, but this is a mythical place. It is a place our society would like us to believe exists — a pot of gold at the end of the proverbial rainbow that we reach when we’ve accumulated enough wealth and security.
However, no amount of comfortable luxury or perceived security will ever result in the realization of this ideal. Why? Because of a law of life that can be summed up in one word: flux.
Flux — meaning transience or change — is all life knows. Our moods, our assets, our liabilities, our relationships, and all other conditions of our existence will never remain constant, despite what our cultural ideal would have us believe.
Death, disaster, disease, unforeseen misfortune, conflict, heartbreak, and the anxieties of day-to-day life will always persist and disrupt what we often think of as happiness or peace.
And you know what? This is a good thing. What we imagine to be happiness is a dreadfully boring proposition. Endless calm or joy or brightness of mind may sound like heaven-on-earth, but we would soon grow accustomed to this state and lose our sense of it being something extraordinary.
We need contrasting emotions to feel their poignancy.
It’s okay that this traditional notion of happiness is boring and mythical, because a true and deeper state of being can still be found. I wish to argue that our greatest satisfaction as humans lies not in constancy, but in transformation.
Growth. Higher knowledge. The attainment of superior states of being. Whatever you want to call it, we can find unparalleled riches and fulfillment by becoming something different than what we were previously.
And though it may seem counter-intuitive, the route to this satisfaction is through discomfort. It is the tumultuous, rocky, unsexy, often infuriating, and crushing periods of life that reveal to us our true worth.
So am I saying happiness doesn’t exist? Well no, but I am suggesting that we would be wise to re-formulate our popular notion of what it looks like.
If the flux of life will always prevent our ideal of perpetual positive mental states, what might happiness look like?
If our greatest satisfaction can be discovered only through times of suffering, is there room for happiness?
I think yes, there is. But it’s a bizarre sort of happiness, a kind that doesn’t at first sound very promising.
True happiness lies in being able to accept, embrace, and even laugh at our pain.
Our aim should be to understand our pain as a necessary result of the flux of life and an essential precursor to our growth — to the manifestation of superior degrees of consciousness.
We can be thankful for our suffering. We must come to see it as our ally, the driving force of our ability to experience new perspectives, deeper compassion, and unknown reserves of strength and resilience that reside within us.
Only then can we laugh at our pains. Only then can we play with the paradox of them — that what seems to be the obvious reaction to pain (the desire to eliminate it) is contrary to happiness.
We shouldn’t resist our pain. We should be thankful that it exists to mold us into more than we knew we could become. That isn’t to say that some people don’t experience undeserved and sickening degrees of pain — they do, and those of us who are more fortunate should help them.
The point is to realize that the pain will not cease. You can resist and resent it and grow bitter. Or you can dance with it, channel the energies it provokes from you, and grow stronger.
This should be our aim — to embrace and bask in the flux of life. To see our pain and smile at a friend in disguise.
When we can do this, we can weather the mightiest storm. Many of our daily sufferings become infinitely more bearable. We can heave a sigh of relief. Happiness was there all along. It was just a matter of perspective, of wisdom.
Ways to Accept and Embrace Pain
1. Wisdom of Transience — One comforting thought for me in the midst of my most profound sufferings — heartbreak, death of loved ones, deep depression, maddening anxiety — has been the old adage that “this too shall pass”. Transience will always bring new pains, but it will also always bring new beginnings, reconciliation, and new hope. You must have faith in this concept and remember it on your darkest days.
2. Absurdity of the Causes — Often, our pains are irrational. We fret unnecessarily about whether someone likes us, whether we can talk in front of people, whether we can complete all of our tasks. Many of these day-to-day pains are trivial. That doesn’t mean our subjective negative feelings of them are not very real, but we can diminish those feelings by concentrating on being rational. Focus intentionally on the foolish nature of your fear, anger, or sadness. Laugh at the stupidity and insignificance of the causes.
3. Worst Case Scenario — Many of our pains result from our imagining results different from those for which we hope. We tend to love control. But, I find it useful to consider the worst thing that could happen — people laugh at you, you get a bad grade, you get fired, someone stops talking to you? Most of the time, the worst case scenario would not be an earth-shattering tragedy. Recognize this often and proceed with the knowledge that few situations are life-or-death.
One Final Suggestion
“Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke
P.S. If this post taught you something or helped you to think about something in a new and useful way, show your support by “liking” Refine The Mind on Facebook here. I really appreciate it.
Donating = Digging Deeply
Consider becoming a patron of my work. For the cost of buying me a nice beer once every six months or so, you can make sure the site continues to exist and help me reach the day when I can work full-time on nudging all of us (myself included) toward a more reflective, open, compassionate existence.