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September 14th, 2012
It sure has been a good few decades for happiness. Before, say, the ‘70s, happiness just wasn’t on the radar screens of most people nor had it been a part of the cultural vocabulary in America. Of course, happiness did merit a mention in our Constitution (“life, liberty and the pursuit of…”), so it has never been thoroughly divorced from our societal zeitgeist, but it just wasn’t something that most people thought or talked much about.
For some cultural reasons that are beyond the scope of this post (though I will venture to suggest that it grew out of the ‘60’s countercultural revolution in reaction to the repressiveness of the ‘50s and perhaps the rise of an economically secure populace with plenty of leisure time), people started to pay attention to happiness. Psychologists began to study it and discovered many of the predictors of this oh-so-elusive mind-state (more on them later). Gosh, an entirely new discipline of the workings of the mind was created, positive psychology, aimed at distinguishing it from what some people perceive as the more dour take on the human psyche found in clinical psychology. And self-help books written to assist people in finding happiness are now regularly found on bestseller lists.
But I think all these efforts to find happiness have gotten completely out of hand. Sadly, as with most formerly valuable and valued aspects of our society, happiness has become cheapened and its essence diminished by being codified, commodified, and merchandised, as if it were a mobile phone, car, or the latest fashion (which it really has become).
Now to those predictors of happiness which, by now, are quite well known. Extensive research has found that happiness arises from good relationships, robust health, having a passion and goals, expressing gratitude, a sense of autonomy, feeling competent, and being absorbed in an activity. Though these qualities certainly ring true, I know a number of people who can place a checkmark next to these items, yet don’t seem the least bit happy. We have, of course, also learned that money doesn’t buy happiness, at least after $75,000 a year in income, though it seems that few people really believe that!
I think we’re asking the wrong questions about happiness. The most common one we ask is: What can I do to find happiness? But I think the real question we should ask is: What is preventing me from experiencing happiness? I feel that we’re trying way too hard to achieve happiness. Most people have come to see it as a goal to accomplish, like all of the other aspirations (e.g., wealth, celebrity, beauty, power) that our culture tries to foist on us. But, in truth, happiness is not a condition that we can actively strive for, but rather can only encourage to happen. Let me explain.
I think happiness is like sleep. We can’t force ourselves to sleep. In fact, the harder we try to sleep, the less likely it will happen. The most we can do with sleep is to create external and internal environments that will allow sleep to occur. The external environment might include a quiet and dark room and a comfortable bed. But even that isn’t enough because, as we all have seen, people can fall asleep in the most improbable places. Ultimately, sleep comes only when we create an internal environment, that is, a particular physical and mental state, notably when our bodies are relaxed and our minds are clear and unburdened.
The same holds true for happiness. And here is where I provide an answer to the question I pose in the title of my post. I would suggest that happiness doesn’t arise from the presence of something (e.g., good relationships, passion, etc.), but rather the absence of something, notably angst. Moreover, the well-known predictors are simply byproducts of this absence of angst, that is to say, when people are free from angst they are better able to embrace and experience those predictors of happiness (e.g., their relationships improve, they feel more free and capable).
What precisely is angst? I think of it in two ways. First, it is a psychological state that includes worry, doubt, rumination, and hypervigilance, clearly all states that don’t play nice with happiness. Second, it is a physical state of stress, agitation, and hyper-arousal, more conditions that will never be sitting at the same table as happiness.
What causes this angst? Well, situations that we perceive to be threatening to our physical, psychological, or emotional well-being, including marital discord, financial stress, ill health, loneliness, lack of freedom, and failure, just to name a few. As long as these conditions are present and angst is the emotion most dominant in our lives, happiness appears to be nigh impossible.
So my suggestion is to stop striving for happiness for two reasons. First, because happiness is a state of mind (and body) rather than an outcome to be achieved (I’m sure you know the cliché that it’s about the journey, not the destination), it is a fruitless endeavor. Second, all of our efforts to pursue happiness will go for naught if the structural barriers to happiness and the accompanying angst remain.
What’s the best way to find happiness from my perspective? Identify and remove the obstacles that cause angst and prevent happiness. You can address the obstacles directly or your perception of those obstacles. For example, if you are unhappily married, you could either get a divorce or accept that marriage has its challenges.
Think about it. If those barriers were eliminated, how would you feel physically? More relaxed, calmer, healthier, more energetic and vital. How would you feel mentally? More positive, freer, more contented, more hopeful. The end result: your angst would subside and, by my definition, its absence would mean that you would feel happier.
Like clouds dissipating over your psychic landscape, the fewer barriers you have to happiness, the less angst you will feel, thus allowing more happiness to shine through into your life.
(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)
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