In Western culture, through various media such as schooling, advertising, TV and movies, we are imparted with pretty specific definitions of how to achieve that one truly elusive emotion than everyone strives for: happiness. However, in spite of all of this, we still seem to have a lot of difficulty in personally pinpointing how to achieve such a state of mind: how often have you find yourself working toward acquiring something only to find yourself washed over with a great feeling of anticlimax upon actually getting there? I’d say this happens because, culturally, our conscious conception of happiness is largely based on two flawed premises:
- Happiness is achieved by “getting” and “having” something: a mortgage / a dream boy or girl / a new pair of shoes.
- Happiness is some kind of emotional endgame, an end of personal history. Consider how we insidiously impart this belief onto children: “…and the Prince and Princess lived happily ever after”.
You’d don’t have to look far for evidence that these definitions are problematic. How many rich and famous pop-singers and movie stars, who with their masses of material possessions and social validation, have reached the consensual endgame of Western aspiration, degenerate into drug-fuelled self-destruction and erratic public behaviour? It soon becomes apparent that a belief in happiness as acquired through amassing more riches, possessions and fame is not based on any real understanding of how the human spirit is actually fulfilled.
In reality, like most things in Western culture, our conception of happiness is mostly an economic necessity. Our current economic system is calibrated toward the goal of perpetual growth through ever increasing GDP and profit margins and this must be achieved by any means necessary. The impact of this dictum on our collective happiness is threefold. Firstly, over the past 50 or so years, business has found that one of the easiest ways to achieve economic objectives is through the mass consumption of material commodities: designer clothes and shoes, cosmetics to make you beautiful and find you the perfect partner, prime real estate to get you onto the property ladder, and so on. “Happiness is acquired through amassing stuff and status.” The spiritual emptiness of this first point leads us onto the second point: in order to escape the fact that there is that much drudgery and vacuity in our everyday lives through the scramble to get more and more stuff, we end up buying into elaborate fantasies for escape: fairy tales, blockbuster movies and reality TV shows where the protagonist “lives happily ever after”. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly enjoy the occasional fantasy film here and there, but the dominance of these creations over our everyday cultural reality is truly astounding.
The third point is probably the most important, as it begins to point us towards to true sources of human happiness. As psychologists and many great spiritual leaders have identified, humans do not achieve happiness by “having” or “being” things, they achieve happiness by doing things. The human brain is hard-wired to derive satisfaction from working towards specific goals and constantly striving to better itself. If you stagnate, you become unhappy. We are necessarily creative animals and it’s not what we consume that gives us the greatest satisfaction, it’s what we produce. Unfortunately, the economic system again serves to obfuscate and obstruct this truth as it is largely one of compartmentalisation and segregation: manager is separate from worker, creative department is separate from technical department, producer is separate from consumer. For so many people, their productive energy is channelled into the 9-5 grind of repetitive, rigid tasks with little room for personal expression or creative freedom, leaving free-time to be given over to consumption: gorging on TV, designer brands and branded food. Of course, creative, autonomising jobs do exist, but historically for a lot of people they have been the exception rather than the norm.
So, what’s the answer? If society in its current setup is never going to sell us happiness on a plate, the only thing that remains is to create it ourselves. Next time you’re feeling a bit down, don’t just curl up in front of a weepy rom-com or go out on the dreaded “retail therapy” and expect it to make everything better. It’s ok to indulge ourselves from time to time but indulgence alone does not bring any good in the long term. Instead, write a poem, take up a musical instrument, start training for a marathon, call up some friends and arrange a day trip. In other words, get a hobby. Happiness is not some magical endgame to our lives; it’s a continuous process that we can never stop striving for.
In my own experience, some of the most unbearable, out of control people I’ve encountered are the ones who have no real passions or vocations within their personal life. The human need to expend creative energy is channelled into creating pointless drama, conflict and gossip. Finding productive, creative uses for one’s free time doesn’t just make us happier, it makes us more interesting as well.
Alan Watts on the unsettling truth about life (animated by Trey Parker and Matt Stone):