Happiness is flashed around like life’s holy grail – as something to be sought out and achieved – so for the greater some, ‘future happiness’ is in perpetual hot pursuit. Future and happiness. Two terms so oft-adjacent and yet, in their familiar intertwining lies a glaring predicament of our materialistic, goal-oriented modern era, where we’ve placed happiness squarely out of reach, in a physically impenetrable realm – much like fastening it to the lustrous tail of a unicorn.
There is no comprehensible way that you can bank on something making you happy. Take it from someone who’s spent the past 30 years researching happiness – Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert who, in his first book Stumbling On Happiness wrote that “When imagination paints a picture of the future, many of the details are necessarily missing, and imagination solves this problem by filling in the gaps with details that it borrows from the present.” And with the slippery cunning of a used-car salesman, our imagination also, according to Daniel, “leaves out” the more humdrum details of what that reality will actually be like.
Say, for example, you’re presently hungry. You imagine a family-sized pizza making you happy, but do you consider the bloated self-revulsion to follow? Say you’re presently lonely. You imagine marriage making you happy, but does your future partner’s body odour fragrance that fantasy? As relationship expert Tracy McMillan said to Oprah on the topic of this most coveted union, “Once the initial high wears off, you’ll just be you, except with twice as much laundry.”
“I don’t mind people being happy, but the idea that everything we do is part of the pursuit of happiness seems to me a really dangerous idea.”
The increasingly mandatory ‘dream job’, too, is something not to pin your hopes of happiness on. Jim Carrey lamented, “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer,” and then there’s the ‘Hedonic Treadmill’ theory that we all return to our base level of happiness (or unhappiness) no matter what life throws our way.
All evidence considered, one would be wise to forget finding happiness and instead embrace their every emotion – their ‘wholeness’ – a state readily achievable with little more than a moment of self-awareness. This is the suggestion of social researcher Hugh Mackay, who wrote in his book, The Good Life, “I don’t mind people being happy, but the idea that everything we do is part of the pursuit of happiness seems to me a really dangerous idea and has led to a contemporary disease in Western society, which is fear of sadness… We’re kind of teaching our kids that happiness is the default position – it’s rubbish.”
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Wholeness, he proposes, is what we ought to be striving for – and this encompasses the full screaming spectrum of feelings that, according to Susan David, author of Emotional Agility, comprises more difficult emotions than not. “The count will vary depending on which expert you ask, but for our purposes, let’s say there are seven basic emotions: joy, anger, sadness, fear, surprise, contempt and disgust,” she wrote for TIME. “All these emotions are still with us because they’ve helped us survive through several million years of evolution. And yet five of them – anger, sadness, fear, contempt and disgust – are clearly on the not-so-comfortable end of the affective spectrum. (‘Surprise’ can go either way.)”
Ask yourself, as Hugh does, “‘Is this contributing to my wholeness?’ and if you’re having a bad day, it is.”
As Hugh Mackay points out, “happiness and victory and fulfilment are nice little things that also happen to us, but they don’t teach us much.” So rather than feeling the pressure to buck up, cheer up or raise your chin out of a wallow, why not sit and sulk in it for a while? Ask yourself, as Hugh does, “‘Is this contributing to my wholeness?’ and if you’re having a bad day, it is.” Freed from the burden of chasing happiness, we daresay you’ll be happier.