Is the Pursuit of Happiness Real?
The pursuit of happiness is a fallacy.
There, I said it.
In order to understand this, let’s first establish some definitions.
Happiness is not a state of having. If this were so, happiness would be a result of what each of us were able to accumulate in life. It would be forever dependent on something other than the self, an externality capable of ceasing within time.
If such were true, happiness could also not mean a state of being. A state of being focuses on the ‘here and now:’ on life at a particular moment within the present. But not every moment in life ought to be happy: people get sick, relationships shatter, individuals experience trauma or lose a loved one.
Being unhappy (a lesser degree of happiness) isn’t the same thing as being sad (the opposite of happiness), and I would advocate a life with periodic unhappy moments over a life of sadness. If not a state of having (past) or a state of being (present), happiness, therefore, must be a state of becoming (future): a process of becoming happier than one is now.
When we think of happiness as a state of becoming, our lives become a process of continuous growth and effort in becoming more than whatever transpires at the current moment. Happiness is a choice to be different tomorrow than one is today.
Happiness is the state of becoming more than what we currently are. It isn’t about knowing every detail about every event at all times, but knowing that we are each placed in a situation because there is something that only we can offer therein. Happiness isn’t about accepting pain and suffering blindly, but picking ourselves up again because we know that our time on Earth isn’t over and that there’s still potential waiting for us to achieve.
A state of becoming means that we’re part of something much larger than ourselves. We connect our unique fragment to the larger, collective whole. And feeling wholesome means realizing that not only is happiness a process, but it is a shared journey of mutual support. We each offer something to repair our fragmented society.
When people ask me how they can live a meaningful life, my answer is usually the same: live life meaningfully. True meaning is personal and can only be decided by each individual. Lots of people use the “cup being half-empty/half-full” metaphor when trying to help others see more positivity in their lives, but I’d like to offer a different analogy.
There are two containers in life: a small cup and a large bottle. We can fill the cup to its maximum and the large bottle less than 3/4 of the way up while still collecting the same amounts of liquid. But, which container is more full?
While the cup is filled to capacity, the bottle still has room for more substance — still possessing that much more than the small cup will ever be able to hold. In life, it’s not how prestigious we are (how large our vessels are), but how much of our potential capacity we’re able to reach. Being a happy person, and living a meaningful life, doesn’t necessarily mean being bigger or better than another, but rather being the biggest and best you can be.
When we try to be somebody else, we essentially try to fill a vessel, a capacity, that is not our own. Living a meaningful life means that we need to look into our psychological selves and see how best to utilize the vessels we’ve been given.
When I teach that happiness is a state of becoming, I mean that it’s a process of filling our own vessels and looking to maximize our own unique potentials. Some of us have more, and some of us have less, but each of us has a potential that only we can reach and actualize. We each have something unique that we can contribute to society at large.
Or perhaps better yet, think of society (or life in general) as one giant book in which we each contribute a chapter. We’ve written part of that narrative already in the years we’ve lived thus far, but can still make choices as to what we will write moving forward.
So, don’t try to be, or fill, someone else’s vessel — be and fill your own. Don’t look at what you’ve achieved to date — the substances you’ve filled your life with so far — but rather at how much more you’re capable of filling, at what you’re capable of becoming tomorrow. Potential is endless, but only reachable if you’re striving to meet the potential that belongs to you.
Muskat-Brown, J. (2014). Is the Pursuit of Happiness Real?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2014/04/08/is-the-pursuit-of-happiness-real/