The Un-Pursuit of Happiness
Do you struggle to find happiness within yourself? Do you despair every time you watch the news? In today’s episode, we’re going to talk about how to get over this despair and how pursuing happiness may not be the best to actually finding happiness.
There’s an interesting trend in a lot of things I’ve been reading online, namely a sense of despair, hopelessness, and depression almost manifesting itself as nihilism. And why is this? Why do we feel like we’re in such hard times? Is it that things were better in the past and we’ve just lost our way, as many in some circles seem to think?
If we look at how things were 100 years ago, most people were likely to be farmers, living a life with a lot of hard work keeping farm animals and harvesting crops - certainly not a life of leisure or comfort. If you lived in the city, you were very likely a factory worker, with less than ideal conditions, often with very long hours because there weren’t a lot of labor laws in place.
So why are we, with so much leisure time and modern conveniences, so unhappy?
I think that ironically it’s because as a society, we focus so much on trying to be happy. Now, why would this, the search for happiness, make so many people unhappy? Isn’t this what we’re supposed to do with our lives? It even says in the American Declaration of Independence from the British that we have the right to “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
But that’s the thing - we’re not guaranteed happiness, we’re only given the opportunity to pursue happiness. But I think it’s this dogged pursuit that gives us so much anguish. So why does pursuing happiness not bring happiness? I mean we’re taught from an early age that when we want something that we go out and get it. I think that happiness it a byproduct of doing useful and good things in our lives. When we try to make ourselves happy, we can’t. It’s like trying pet a cat. The more you chase after the cat, the more it runs from you until you stop chasing it and ignore it, then it suddenly shows up trying to snuggle itself right into your face. It isn’t until we stop trying to be happy, and just focus on trying to live a good life, that happiness finds us. Happiness is what happens when we making other plans or while we’re doing other things.
>“If what you have seems insufficient to you, then though you possess the world, you will yet be miserable.”
If you were to ask yourself what you want in your life, what would be on that list? Would you list the things that you already have? One of the most important things that I’ve learned in studying stoicism it to be grateful for what we have, and to learn to want what we already have. If we’re always chasing some shiny object to fill that hole inside of us, we’ll always feel empty. Appreciating what we have - a place to live, family and friends, food, even the most basics of things, can immediately improve our level of happiness.
When I was in high school me and my friends used to say, “Wherever you go, there you are.” At the time it was just us being silly. I think we’d heard it on some TV commercial or show, but as I’ve gotten older, I realize that there is a profound truth in it. You can’t ever escape who you are. If you’re unhappy with who you are, if you don’t like yourself, nothing that you have, nothing that you do will ever fix that. Learning to be okay with yourself, learning to love yourself, and be good to yourself, is one of the biggest keys to happiness. I think loving who you are is an overlooked part of loving what you have. To recognize you are worthy of love despite, or maybe even because of your faults, is not an easy thing. But remember, we are all imperfect and messy and full of doubts, and every single one of us is worthy of love.
>“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
I read an essay a while back from Darius Foroux and he proposed that life is not about being happy, it’s about being useful. That idea really struck a chord with me, because when I really think about it, the times in my life when I’ve felt the best are when I’ve taken on the challenges that I'm facing and I work at them, and I make some headway. When I’m serving other people, and I’m trying to help others through their challenges, I feel energized. When I’m working on creating something, whether that’s music or writing or this podcast, I feel like there’s purpose to my efforts. When I’m challenging myself in some way that somehow adds value to the world, I feel like I’m contributing, and that I’m helping move the world forward in some way.
>“One cannot pursue one’s own highest good without at the same time necessarily promoting the good of others. A life based on narrow self-interest cannot be esteemed by any honorable measurement. Seeking the very best in ourselves means actively caring for the welfare of other human beings. Our human contract is not with the few people with whom our affairs are most immediately intertwined, nor to the prominent, rich, or well educated, but to all our human brethren.”
I think the last, and most important part of allowing happiness to find you, is serving others. When we focus on ourselves and only look after ourselves, we miss out on adding to something to the world. When we only look after our own happiness, remembering that happiness is a byproduct of action, the more we can give to the world, the more chances happiness will have to show up in our lives. Rather than complain about all the things that are wrong with the world, what can you do to be part of the solution? We all have something to offer, some unique talent that the world needs. Even if it’s just showing up and supporting causes that you believe in. Every good movement in the world needs people that are willing to show up.
I know that it seems like there’s so much wrong in the world. I think every age has had its struggles with problems that seem insurmountable and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. But remember, you can only do what you can do, and that will be enough. Don’t get discouraged because you can’t save the world in a day. But add something good, be on the positive side of the equation, and know that you’re being part of the solution.
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