by Gary Egan
The contemporary pursuit of happiness takes place in a commercial-addled environment and it might help to distinguish between satisfying a craving and achieving happiness. Advertisers ascribe to consumer products mood-altering qualities they don’t possess yet rarely find themselves in breach of trades descriptions acts. By rights all products should carry a warning: This product might satisfy a craving – briefly – but it won’t make you happy.
By craving I mean anything from chocolate to sex. While absence of sex is unlikely to make for happiness, it’s safe to assume happiness can’t be defined purely – or impurely – in terms of sex. It seems the faster we satisfy our material wants the less satisfied we become. Which might just indicate that the problem arises from our wanting. In a consumer society we run the risk of being consumed by unhappiness. A Buddhist might put this down to a failure to recognize the futility of desire; a less easterly perspective might not condemn desire per se, but argue that we’re unhappy because we want things that don’t make us happy. Happiness doesn’t have to mean shopping-bags under our eyes; there is such a thing as happiness without a barcode.
I don’t mean something deeper. Happiness isn’t deep. For one thing it doesn’t last. For another it’s as fickle as they come. It can happen at any time or, like a fair- weather friend, it may fail to turn up when we most need it. Yes, maybe happiness is a bit like love. But any form of euphoria is suspect because of its intensity, associated as it is with emotions that are bound to drop us from a height sooner or later. Bliss comes and goes maliciously; when it feels like it, when we least expect it. So we should be prepared or – since we can never be fully prepared – we should remain open to the possibility of happiness now as opposed to when such-and-such happens.
When I have every reason to feel happy I often don’t but sometimes I feel happy for no very good reason. But maybe no very good reason is the best reason. Maybe to stop feeling happy for no very good reason is as tragic as being happy in retrospect. That’s an odd thing about happiness: we have to appreciate it at the time but if we’re too aware of it before we can say Mrs. Robinson it’s left and gone away. Overconscious of our imperishable moments, we watch those moments perish. Not when we aren’t looking but when we’re looking too closely. Happiness doesn’t play hard to get unless we make ourselves hard to want by wanting it too hard. Happy moments should be cherished lightly, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. If it is, so be it: the concept of happiness is riddled with such contradictions.
In my experience happiness is often linked to unrealistic expectations. Hope has a lot to answer for. If we don’t hope we won’t be disappointed. Being in a state of anticipation is exciting, but are we happy like this? Or is it just suspended deflation? But how can we live without hope? The trouble with looking forward is, we’re liable to miss something right beside us, something that might make us happy. I’m not saying expect the worst but if we expect the best the consequences can be even more disastrous. When we’re not hoping for some desirable outcome we’re more likely to see things as they are. Being easily-pleased is an underrated trait, but it’s a quality incorporating enthusiasm, openness, optimism and humility – and a quality I associate with all the happy people I’ve ever known. By easily-pleased I don’t mean gormlessly uncritical. On the contrary we should be easily-displeased by advertising’s self-serving criteria for happiness. Learning how to be easily-pleased and lower expectations aren’t lessons that appeal in the 21st century – no advertising agency would touch that assignment – but nonetheless I consider them ingredients in any non-chemical antidote to depression.
Some equate happiness with self-expression but a no less potent argument might equate it with selflessness. Happiness is other-aware, if not other-centred. To locate happiness exclusively within ourselves is to be indifferent to the happiness of others and such a happiness could justifiably be accused of crassness. I’ve worked with people who try to help other people and they’re generally happier than those whose work consists primarily of convincing people they want things they don’t need. To locate happiness exclusively outside ourselves, however, is to scrimp on our own happiness. Introspection invariably turns masochistic in the end but at the same time a lack of introspection is facile.
Maybe happiness isn’t located so much in the experience as our attitude towards it. It’s to be expected, given their material circumstances, that some people should be morose; the only surprise is that more people aren’t more so. An attitude that accepts unhappiness might be useful. Maybe the degree to which we accept our happiness’s limitations determines how happy or unhappy we are. Attempts to prolong happiness beyond its natural timespan are as calamitous as cosmetic surgery that stretches the skin as tight as a drum: it won’t take and it’s not fooling anybody. So what if happiness is short-lived? How long does it need to be? How long is a piece of string? There are no strings attached to happiness except the ones we attach to it ourselves by urging it to be something other than it is. If it were longer we still might not be happy.
So much unhappiness stems from failing to accept a moment for what it is – all it is – however short. To accept happiness for what it is and unhappiness for what it is, knowing that neither state of mind is permanent and that the desire for permanence is at the root of much unhappiness is recommended for those who seek to be happy.
Is it the case that most of the time we’re more or less unhappy rather than happy? Maybe happiness, given its all-too-brief appearance in our lives, isn’t where it’s at. This is depressing until we entertain the heretical possibility that it’s something else we’re after; that we might never be happy as long as we’re striving for something but nor will we be happy unless we’re striving for something. Instead of trying to be happy we might resolve to try not to make ourselves more unhappy. Rather than trying to convince ourselves that things aren’t as black as they seem, we might remind ourselves that they were probably never as happy as they seemed when they didn’t seem black. Happiness might be described as a medium neither happy nor unhappy but sensitive to the prevailing mood, whatever it happens to be.
Perhaps the point to grasp about happiness is that it’s hard to grasp, but not to experience. Catching a falling leaf is analagous to the pursuit of happiness. What would-be leaf-catchers must never do is lunge at it because by doing so they create air-currents that frighten the leaf away. Instead stand tree-trunk-still, palm outstretched and, as soon as it’s in range, curl your fingers around it. To speak of catching a leaf isn’t quite right. It’s less acquisitive than that. The leaf chooses to land or it doesn’t; we either repel or attract it.
This might sound too passive, standing there waiting for a leaf that might or might not fall our way. However, while some people imagine that if they work really, really hard they’ll be happy at the end of it, personally I don’t think happiness works like that. Statistics do suggest that losing a job is a common source of depression but sadly there’s no indication that work makes us happy. I’m not saying don’t have career- goals but while reaching them might make you richer it won’t necessarily make you happier. A sense of achievement is quite different from feeling happy. Alongside the satisfaction of the former there can be a sense of anti-climax; a realization of how much more remains to be done. Achievement can just as often turn out to be a treadmill, not a terminus, so it might be misguided to talk of achieving happiness. But to recognize that happiness is a series of moments, not an achievement, might also be regarded as an achievement. I believe to be happy means to be constantly alert, always ready should happiness be bothered to turn up; being observant, quick to respond to the unique fate of each and every day – and that too amounts to a life’s work. It’s not about being careful, it’s about being able to drop our guard at a moment’s notice. Like an autumn leaf, happiness might land in the palm of your hand at any time. Take care that your hand is open to receive it.
Gary Egan is a performance poet, freelance writer & market researcher. When he can find a minute he also studies Counselling & Psychotherapy in Castlebar.