Happiness, to many of us, is synonymous with the good life. This is the impression we get when we see rich people. How could they not be happy when they have private jets, drive some of the most expensive cars, and dine with celebrities? How could they not be happy when they can afford virtually anything they desire to have? As a result of this mindset, we become unhappy and grouchy when our fortunes are on a downward spiral. We do everything we can to be successful in life so that we too can be happy, or so we presume.
The United States’ Declaration of Independence as drafted by Thomas Jefferson, postulates that part of the “unalienable rights” of man are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. As a result of this dictum, it has been intricately woven into the American culture to actively pursue happiness. Yet, many Americans suffer from chronic depression not because of poverty or disease, but because of the emptiness that ensues from becoming miserably self-absorbed in the vain “pursuit of happiness”. Masses of people around the world actively pursuing happiness have driven themselves into untold misery.
Voltaire said that “happiness is an illusion”. This is especially true if it is contingent upon the capricious forces of nature. You sometimes get this counsel: “Why don’t you do something that makes you happy?” So you eat your favourite food, watch some of your favourite movies; you go on a holiday, experience the climax of sex and then you go back to your previous state of melancholy. In the end, the happiness you sought was illusory.
When we fight off feelings of sadness and pain, we are simply saying that pain and sadness have no value whatsoever. But to be sure, misery has its value. I am not advocating that we should choose to be gloomy. What I am saying is that we can choose not to be grouchy when we are in seemingly adverse situations. It is also of paramount importance for us to understand the limit of happiness. I have no scientific method to prove that there’s virtue in misery other than anecdotal evidence. I have come to realize that while happiness brings complacency, pain creates empathy. You can probably never appreciate and truly care for someone in pain unless you have been through a similar experience or something close to that. Secondly, misery, in my opinion, is the mother of ingenuity. How many times have you really been inspired to do something when you were in an exuberant mood? You are more motivated to do something productive when you are down in the dumps; therefore, if something stirs you to be ingenious, it must have some value.
If happiness is not a corollary of wealth, better still if possessions do not have an intrinsic pleasure-value, how then can we get true happiness? If there is virtue in sorrow, then it must mean that happiness has its limitations. If the pursuit of happiness does not invariably give us happiness, then we must not exert ourselves in order to be happy.
Happiness is certainly realizable, but not by making it our preoccupation. Why don’t we stop trying to be happy, de-emphasise the pursuit of happiness and channel that energy into making other people happy? Why don’t we try changing our negative attitudes to seemingly bad situations?
I read this somewhere: “Don’t wait for the storm to pass; learn to dance in the rain”. The best concept of happiness that I have found is that when happiness is incidental rather than contrived, that is when it is truly genuine.