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Why happiness is the wrong goal

Once we take happiness out of the natural order of every pursuit, we can be kinder to ourselves for the way we are and what we do

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

Many years ago, spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar pointed to me to tell his disciples how not to be. “Some people never smile," he said as I left the room moments after our conversation ended. The interview had not gone well. He had expected me to be seated on the floor like his millionaire disciples and the journalists before me, as he sat on a throne. But I had dragged a chair, and sat on it. He announced, once I had left the room, that I must be an unhappy person. I heard his disciples burst out laughing because even though they probably came to him to cure sorrow, the accusation of innate unhappiness in a foe was the ultimate insult.

In many other rooms of the world, unhappiness is perceived as a character flaw. Happiness is widely accepted as the central goal of life. It is, in fact, accepted as the only universal goal. All other respectable pursuits are so only because they are said to lead to happiness. Even sugar finds legitimacy in the civilized world because it is associated with happiness. The pursuit of happiness is, in fact, a stated fundamental American right. But can happiness ever be a pursuit, really? Especially when we are not sure what it means?

We have been trying to get a grip on the meaning of happiness for centuries. All our fables and all our religions tell us that we have to be moral to attain it. As children, our first foreboding of the seriousness of life is that happiness is the very opposite of fun.

We are not clear about what happiness is but the wisest among us claim it is distinct from pleasure. We defame pleasure.

“Pleasure is short-term, addictive and selfish. It’s taken, not given. It works on dopamine. Happiness is long-term, additive and generous. It’s giving, not taking. It works on serotonin," wrote the American marketer Seth Godin in his blog recently. As people say when they fear they are being semantic, he added, “This is not merely simple semantics."

He went on to say that pleasure and happiness may appear to be the same thing but they are very different. “Marketers usually sell pleasure," he wrote, but he did not arrive at the meaning of happiness, except that it is something more valuable, and comes at the very end.

Yet, for most people, happiness is nothing but a chain of frequent instances of pleasure. If there is no pleasure at frequent intervals, including the rush derived from eating junk or ingesting easy entertainment, they become unhappy. But for some, Godin’s description of happiness, even though it is from a man who is groping in the dark like many of us, is very familiar and convincing. Both types of people, the ones who think pleasure is happiness, and the unhappy deep thinkers who invent meanings of joy, face the same problem in the practical world. The very things that make us happy cease to do so if they persist. A stable happy life soon becomes a rot and we begin to long for change. Every now and then, happy people itch to do something rash to escape the rot of happiness.

The fact is we tire of happiness. We know in our hearts that there is something more. It is not the ultimate pursuit that the modern age has made it out to be. “Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided," wrote the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. “Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfil or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is."

This search for meaning, too, is couched as a form of happiness. That is just poor language. And we should not underestimate the role of language in creating philosophical confusion.

Take our pursuit of meaning, for instance. We are trained to believe that we have to “discover" it, we have to “find" it; that it exists somewhere, and some men, chiefly men, have found it. At least one man sat under a tree and found it. What if, in reality, meaning is something we have to invent, rather than discover? What if life is inherently meaningless and we have to fabricate some grand intellectual or philosophical pursuit to save us from the soul-crunching boredom of life? And what if the pursuit of meaning, like many other pursuits, depends neither on dopamine nor on serotonin?

What if the truth is that our search for meaning, knowledge and companionship is not supposed to make us happy at all, yet it is important for us to pursue them? What if our instinct to perform our duties, or even amass wealth, is not supposed to lead us to happiness, but is a requirement of our primal instincts? What if the confusion and disenchantment of modern life is because our pursuits do not lead to happiness, and we are trained to presume it is because of a fault in us?

Once we take happiness out of the natural order of every pursuit, we can be kinder to ourselves for the way we are and what we do. We can then let our madness flow instead of trying to tame it when it does not lead to pleasure or joy. We can accept ambition as a capacity for unhappiness and go through life without feeling like charlatans just because we wish to achieve material things. We can perform our parental duties instead of overrating men who abandoned their families and sought refuge in the Himalayas.

In diminishing the hold of happiness over us, we need not develop a contempt for it. We see in the arts and the humanities the elevation of misery as the highest form of seriousness. But perhaps we should have respect for happiness, otherwise we will lose our sources of happiness, including the people who love us. It is only when we do not have happiness that we know exactly what it is.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous.

The writer tweets at @manujosephsan

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