OPINIONS

Pursuit of Happiness

I’d like to talk a little about happiness. We’re all trying to find it, right? I am at least. It’s a trope so widely circulated that I hesitate to use it, but what the heck. You know: money won’t buy you happiness. I think we all have an inkling of what makes us happy, like being with people you like and eating a bowl of ice cream. The downside of happiness is that it’s always fleeting. It says hello, makes you feel all warm and fuzzy, then takes its leave without saying goodbye.

This should be somewhat comforting. If happiness is fleeting, so is sadness, right? All emotions are but temporary. But when you’re sad, it feels like you’ll be sad forever. When you’re happy, you can already feel it slipping away.

What kills me is that happiness is really just a state of mind. I can be happy literally any moment. I can will myself to be overjoyed about how comfortable this blanket feels, and there’s no reason that that my joy can’t be equal (or greater) than the joy of a man who just bought a yacht. But of course, I don’t. I pin my happiness on things out of my reach, like that cool T-shirt I really want. If only I had that T-shirt, my brain whispers to me. Think of how cool you would look! Think of all the friends you would have! Shut up, brain.

It’s very likely the man that just bought his yacht or Porsche or (insert fancy schmancy object here) is not too happy anymore. Maybe his bliss lasted for a day or so. I don’t know what you’d call this state of bliss (uber-rich people: what is the word I am looking for?). In any case, after a period of hours, the yacht has failed to provide the fulfillment said man had hoped it would. We buy things to fill emotional vacuums. No one ever buys a shirt because it’s a pretty shirt. Well, maybe they do. But when I buy a shirt I buy it because I have visions of me in this rad shirt feeling like a million bucks and making a boatload of friends. Chances are, the man probably imagined that a yacht would bring with it cadres (binders?) of women, and maybe of those, he would find a wife he really loved and settle down with, and finally he’d fulfill that secret dream of his, living in a treehouse in the middle of the woods.

This equation never works. I buy a shirt. I wear the shirt. Nothing happens. It’s just a shirt, I realize. Just a shirt. This is why I imagine perfumes are the most anticlimactic purchase you can make. Perfume ads must be in a devilish bargain with our inner critic, because they’ve mastered the trick of making us believe that with this perfume, we will transform into the belle of the ball and be pursued by an unshaven European man wearing a tuxedo. You cave and buy the perfume. Nothing happens. You look at it again and see it now. It’s just a bottle of liquid! ‘You paid $50 for this?’ my brain shouts at me in disbelief, the same brain that fell for the promise of the European man. Oh, brain.

Happiness is relative, yadda yadda. You are surely smart cookies and have a grasp on the basic tenets of new-agey wisdom. We’re children of the ‘90s, after all. Where I start to worry, though, is when I get to thinking about my future. See, I’ve always been enamored with this idea of The Big Dream. I’ve loved the movies all my life and I’ve never really deviated from my ambition to be a writer-director. To consider doing something else is too painful, too earth-shatteringly destabilizing, that I can’t even bear to fathom it. But this question of happiness keeps nipping at my ankles, prodding me to answer: Is this really going to make you happy? As far as I can tell, it is. I love cinema, I truly do. Sometimes, though, I imagine myself living at an orangutan sanctuary somewhere in Southeast Asia and being truly content. You know, meditating and surfing and just being all-around happy with life. What would be the difference between happiness attained that way versus happiness earned tooth and nail, by achieving my dream of success and fame? Can you quantify happiness? Or a better question, what makes one kind of happiness more precious than the other? In the end, isn’t it the same? Couldn’t I be just as happy right now, at 9 on a Wednesday night, chilling in my room? Who says I even need to fly to Thailand?

“No! What are you saying, you crazy hippie!” my brain fires back. My brain gets scared by the work involved in assuming a “happy” state of mind. It’s too impatient and impulsive. It gets to poking me about Thailand, and being in shape, and yes, that shirt. Truly, my brain is the most effective slimy salesman out there. If only you did this and had these things, it coos, why then, you’d be happy. Again, it seduces me. I cave. I buy the damn shirt. A few endorphins rush in, quickly depart, and then it’s back to square one: back on the prowl for the next quick fix. A few endorphins. Disappointment. All of it hollow, fruitless. I know this and yet I’m still a slave to the material promise of happiness. Out of laziness? Impatience? Whatever it is, the cycle is self-perpetuating. When it comes down to it, who can resist the perfumer’s siren song, the glass vial of concentrated happiness? So effortless. Forget fifty bucks. People would pay a million for that.

Contact Alex Bayer at abayer@stanford.edu.

  • hrmmm

    I don’t think it’s as hard as you think it is to stop being fooled by the illusion of happiness from new shiny material things. My personal thing is bicycling. I’ve noticed this correlation among my fellow cyclists: the ones who buy all the shiny bicycle things are the ones who tend to do the least bicycling. Cyclists who bicycle all the time — year after year, all year, to work, to buy groceries, in the hills on the weekends — buy only the things they need to keep the bicycle working smoothly. The thing is, material items become baggage. They take away from just being out, pedaling. I think that’s true of most material items in most contexts. They just become baggage. And because that’s true, if you just commit to giving up on superfluous items for a while (while you’re still under the spell of shiny things), the illusion finally goes away, and then you don’t want them any more.

    I think the bigger problem is fighting *un*happiness. Your remark about your blanket is kind of funny to me, because I sometimes wake up on a cold morning and wonder if it’s possible to be any more content than being in the cocoon of warmth of my bed. But then I have to get up and face the challenges of the day. Responsibilities I’ve taken on for which I’m not sure I have the competence. Deadlines that I’m not sure I can make. Work that is going badly, or at least if not badly, not nearly as well as I’d hoped. Just a general sense of failure. To me, that’s the real source of unhappiness: a feeling of failure.

    I guess my point is that it’s easier than I think people think it is to be happy: warm blankets, bicycle rides, ice cream, giggling with friends (though I wish I had a good friend here to giggle with; it’s sad how everybody’s always moving away). But it’s very hard not to be *un*happy, just because, well, life is hard. Or I’ve made it that way. Or something.

  • http://twitter.com/jaycross jaycross

    Alex, our language lacks good words to describe two entirely different states of happiness. Psychologists call the transient, short-term happiness with your new T-shirt or Porsche “Hedonic happiness.” This is a different beast than long term contentment and satisfaction with life that Aristotle calls Eudaimonic happiness. Ironically, these two happinesses are not directly related; lots of smiles does not guarantee long-term wel-being. To thrive, you need both.

  • Alex Bayer

    Hi! Thanks for your thoughts. I pretty much agree. Happiness is a complex thing and I’m still trying to understand it. Some thoughts in your response to your comments…

    I do understand that feeling of unhappiness and that larger sense of failure that pervades us all. But I have come to learn that being mindful of the moment (and not letting the stressors of the past or future) can help alleviate those anxieties. In other words, you can avoid that “unhappiness” (which I guess I would equate to the general anxiety that’s stored in our subconscience) by being grateful for the present moment, even and especially the smallest things, like the warmth of your blanket. I haven’t figured out how to this yet (like you said, it hard for those thoughts of self-doubt to not bubble up) but I do recognize that being thankful, sometimes unnaturally so, for the here and now is the best solution to this stream of angst.

    I totally agree with what you wrote about material becoming baggage. But I do think it’s very difficult to break the cycle of consumerist gratification. We live in a society that equates happiness with material gain; we cannot escape advertisements, and these speak directly to that very (skewed) logic. As much as I recognize, in an intellectual sense, that material goods are never going to be fulfilling in the long-term, I still buy things I don’t need. I can’t go into Target without leaving with at least one pointless purchase. I’m all about searching for real, sustainable sources of happiness. But even though I know that it’s relationships (not things) and experiences (not things) that constitute real fulfillment, it’s extremely challenging, at least for me, to break out of the cycle in such a pressure-cooker environment like Stanford. Because schoolwork/stress practically consumes most of my time, I look for those quick jolts of “happiness” to reinvigorate me. The easiest comes in the form of buying a new shirt. And though I know even as I do so it’s a superficial and temporary means of happiness, I don’t have the time or enough attention left to focus on what I really need to do to be happy. I think this may suggest that the overly stress-filled lifestyle of a typical student here is in many ways in unsupportive of & incongruent with the elements of true happiness, though this is a whole new topic. And perhaps I am just cynical :) Anyways, I’d love to hear your thoughts and continue the discussion.

  • Alex Bayer

    Dear jaycross,
    Thanks for the knowledge! I confess I don’t know much about the science of happiness, though I would very much like to learn. It’s useful to know these distinctions. You mention you need both—I’m curious, to what extent does one need hedonic happiness? Is there a certain frequency at which it overtakes & distracts from Eudaimonic happiness, and therefore becomes detrimental?
    Thanks again.
    Sincerely,
    Alex

  • hrmmm

    Well, I think you nailed several issues, so I can’t add much. I would like to add some precision, though.

    First, I think it’s a good thing that you know what simple and harmless thing can give you a squirt of pleasure when you need it, even if it’s superficial. So, really, is there a reason to change that? Perhaps you can just refine it a bit. For example, as you pointed out, happiness correlates more with experiences than things. So instead of buying a shirt online (say), why not go to Buffalo Exchange (or someplace cool like that) with some friends, thereby turning the shirt acquisition into an experience. The bonus side effect is the shirt becomes associated with an experience (going shopping with friends) and so you might even enjoy it as a material item more.

    Second, not all materialistic squirts of happiness are the same. A shirt is pretty harmless, and we all have to cover our bodies. But some things people might buy to get a little squirt of happiness can have externalities that make them ethically questionable. Diamonds are an easy example of that. Consumer electronics, too.

    Third, although this was not at all your point, I think it’s worth pointing out that some methods of getting a squirt of happiness can be self-destructive. Binge drinking comes to mind. So if buying useless but harmless stuff is your biggest weakness, I think you’re in pretty good shape. Don’t you?

    Fourth, mindfulness: Yep, I wish I could do that. I think it’s a matter of magnitude. If I have a bunch of small worries, I can usually compartmentalize them. But if I have a big one, attempts at mindfulness fail. (I guess some people would suggest that my big worries are not so big, but I haven’t figured out how to reduce their perceived magnitude.)

    Fifth, I think the most important broad point you make (as I interpret it) is that even though we know of better ways to make ourselves happy, somehow they are or at least seem inaccessible in a high-stress environment. I wish I had more friends whom I could trust like me and aren’t just tolerating me. I’ve often wished there were stickers we could wear to identify important, basic things about us and so would help us select appropriate relationships. Like: “I’m single and looking for a life partner” or “Thinking of having a fling. You?” or “Definitely struggling” or “Got my game face on. Outta my way!” And so on. That way it would be easy on a day when I feel like I’m struggling to go up to someone else who has their struggling sticker on and say: “Want to get coffee and chat?” and I wouldn’t have to worry about accidentally engaging with someone who has their game face on.

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