The Tragedy of Happiness

“It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

As Published in The Age, 18/03/2017:

It was Eeyore who first alerted me to the perils of happiness. Living on the edge of the Hundred Acre Woods, in a place called “Rather Boggy and Sad”, the downcast donkey was Winnie the Pooh’s gloomy companion in A.A. Milne’s much-loved children’s books. Forever losing his tail, he was the archetypal outsider, the melancholic foil to Tigger’s boundless bounciness.

My father used to warn me: “If you laugh too much, you’ll end up crying.” And as he read the books to me, I was drawn to Eeyore. This beloved donkey reflects the dark side of the pursuit of happiness, which Thomas Carlyle, a 19th-century critic, termed “the shadow of ourselves”. Those of us who, like Eeyore, keep losing our tails, are doomed to feel like failures, told by society that we should just “cheer up”.

Happiness is our most coveted, yet elusive, goal. It has become our contemporary obsession and creed – an idea and aspiration that has gripped our collective imagination.

Historically viewed as a shallow and selfish goal, happiness now forms a thriving industry, complete with its own branding and lexicon – words such as wellness, empowerment, energy and flow bombard us 24/7, promising that when we finally fit together all the pieces of this puzzle called life – the luxury house, the perfect job, the tightest abs – we will have attained the very heights of Happiness.

Meanwhile, illicit pleasure-seekers swallow pills stamped with a smiley face, Pharrell Williams exhorts us to “clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth”, and entire shelves filled with popular psychology and self-help books promise a panacea to sadness. But it is precisely this desperate striving to find happiness that may be making us even more miserable.

The tragedy is that when we don our proverbial rose-coloured glasses and view happiness as a permanent emotional state, it becomes as evanescent and unreachable as a beautiful sunset on the horizon. While we gaze upon it longingly, it vanishes, like Eurydice slipping away from her beloved Orpheus, right back into the bowels of Hell.

Our ideas about what constitutes happiness have changed dramatically through the ages. The ancient Greeks equated it with virtue, while early Judaeo-Christian belief saved it for the afterlife. Traditionally, happiness existed in idealised, otherworldly places such as Xanadu, the fields of Elysium, Heaven or Paradise. Humans ran the gauntlet of life’s perils, dodging poverty, disease, famine and war, hoping to be rewarded by dying honourably at the end.

For the ancients, happiness was not a subjective state, but the reckoning of an entire life from the retrospective vantage point of death. At the dawn of Western civilisation, happiness was deemed a chance event, at the whim of the gods. Even the linguistic root of the word comes from the Old Norse, meaning “chance” or “fortune”.

It was only with the coming of the Enlightenment that happiness was branded as a natural and inalienable right, something humanly attainable on Earth. In our bruised and imperfect modern world, “the happiness of all” – as outlined in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen – has taken on the fervour of a competitive sport. We have even written ourselves an 11th commandment – “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” – in which happiness is confused with hedonism. Yet the fruitless quest for its attainment often leads to discontent and misery.

Despite the prevalence of horoscopes, palm readers and casinos, Westerners resist the notion that life is a crapshoot, happiness too readily thwarted by random misfortune. We bemoan the fact that “shit happens”, pulling out our Smiley apps and breathing deeply to overcome adversity. We view happiness as a right and assume that it lies within our power to permanently attain its heights. Run a Google search for “happiness” and you get 528 million results. The happiness industry is selling us a bastardised version of the “good life” that Aristotle had in mind. No longer centred around living virtuously, it has morphed into a generic preoccupation with “feeling good”. We are constantly looking outside of ourselves for the next quick fix, trying to buy our way towards a permanent smile.

This rising focus on the impossible ideal of happiness has happened alongside two other enormous cultural shifts – unparalleled economic prosperity and the decline in religious belief and practice. The advertising industry has replaced the clergy in leading us to the sublime, guided by the fallen angels of celebrity who have us worshipping beauty and fame.

Dr Happy, aka Tim Sharp, calls himself the “chief happiness officer” at The Happiness Institute, described as “Australia’s first organisation devoted solely to enhancing happiness in individuals, families and organisations”. With a strong background in clinical psychology, he runs workshops on “happiness”, helping individuals and corporations to understand that so-called negative emotions – anxiety, fear and anger – should never be banished. Rather, we must learn from them; pessimism can be of benefit and serve a purpose, especially in occupations based on problem identification, such as risk assessment, law and engineering.

“Finding meaning and purpose in life isn’t always easy, but it can’t be found in the fleeting pleasures of materialism and consumerism,” he tells me. “You might feel excited by the latest smartphone, but within six months it becomes obsolete and can be a source of dissatisfaction.”

Research shows that genuinely happy people are more inclined to transcend immediate self-gratification and embrace a more value-based life that is focused on others. Social genomics even indicates it may influence our health at the very molecular level.

We’re not intrinsically designed to be happy all the time – we evolved for survival and reproduction. Happiness is a place we may visit, but cannot inhabit permanently. We need to rethink our belief that the pursuit of happiness should be our sole purpose in life. Rather than viewing happiness as an emotional end-goal, we should regard it as an ongoing process, enmeshed with the full experience of a value-based life, not simply an emotional currency to be spent. If our only goal is to reach the summit, we ignore the challenge and joy of climbing and occasionally enjoying the view along the way.