Happiness is the holy grail of many people on the path of self-improvement. It is probably the hardest of all goals and the progress to it is counterintuitive. There are many things that do not make us happy, despite our highest hopes. Maybe it is beneficial to talk about them. For more reading, I refer you to here, here, here, here, here, here and here.
The things we want are not the things we need
We all want to be rich and famous. At the same time, we know that rich and famous people have their own problems. It seems like each year we are surprised by rich and famous people committing suicide. These victims of depression should be added to the rich and famous suffering from substance abuse. We do not know most of the stories. If someone dies from suicide or overdose they can get a news coverage. The people who suffer in the relative comfort of their homes remain largely anonymous.
Being poor and sick is probably not good for us. Poor and sick people suffer from pain and have to struggle for their food. Yet, these people usually keep on fighting. When I was a child, I read “Man’s Search for Meaning”, a 1946 book by Viktor Frankl. The author argues that the people in concentration camps in the midst of incredible suffering fought to live on. They imagined a life full of purpose and pleasure they can have after the war. And that imagination often kept them going. I mentioned the book not long ago to one of my friends, a psychologist, who remarked: “Yes, but the same people often committed a suicide after the war”.
Having a goal we can visualize fills us with hope and motivation. Reaching the goal and finding it different from what we imagined, often feels empty and hopeless.
Being in love
Possibly, love is the craziest thing that happens to perfectly normal people. It seems like we fall in love with real people, but in fact, we probably do not even see these people. We see our fantasies projected on the people we love. For a while, we want very little except being close to the people we love. After a while, the spell disappears and we find ourselves locked in a long-term relationship with a stranger, whom we learn to love again. If we fail and drift apart, the real person often is replaced by a fantasy once again. Recently I visited a stand-up act where the comedian noticed that most love songs deal with the fantasy love: falling in love and missing the lost love. Very few songs if any deals with loving a real person: smelly, moody, and defective in very unexpected ways.
Love is an interesting example of happiness. We are happy falling in love. We remember the lost love as a lost paradize. We seldom feel truly happy dealing with everyday issues with a real person we happen to love.
Unskilled and unaware of it
Most people will probably report themselves as more blessed than the average. They will also report that they drive better and safer than the average driver, they are better people and they deserve to have more than the average. Quite often they will think that acquiring just one more skill will make all the difference. The people who are blessed with exceptional skills and experience will probably report that they do not know enough to face the problem they face every day, they fail a lot and they often do not really know how to improve the situation. In their papers Dunning and Kruger concluded:
People who lack the knowledge or wisdom to perform well are often unaware of this fact. That is, the same incompetence that leads them to make wrong choices also deprives them of the savvy necessary to recognize competence, be it their own or anyone else’s… Each of us at some point reaches the limits of our expertise and knowledge. Those limits make our misjudgments that lie beyond those boundaries undetectable to us.
Most people feel happy when they solve a task in physics, without understanding what it actually means. The prominent physicists struggle with the fact that they do not fully understand the forces that make the universe work and why quantum physics works. Being able to apply the knowledge is very different from understanding the underlying mechanics that cause the knowledge to be true. In one of the comments on this blog, a student asked me “Scientists tell that good sleep is good. Why is it so?”. In fact, there were many studies showing that sleep has a strong positive effect, but I do not know any study explaining the underlying neurological mechanism with sufficient details and certainty.
People who feel confident in their skills probably are not sufficiently skilled to address the hard issues. People who are sufficiently skilled to deal with the hard issues understand the limitations of their skillset and feel less optimistic.
The progress paradox
A few centuries ago the Enlightenment movement tried to make people happy by introducing scientific and technological progress. Our current civilization is probably a realization of this vision that is even greater than the vision itself. Yet we are not happy. It turns out that the more complex and advanced civilizations have become, the less satisfaction people are experiencing in their lives. We may contribute the lost happiness to complexity and stress levels of our lives, or to the realization of the limitations of technological and scientific progress, or to the lack of corresponding spiritual progress. We could ask knowing the human nature, would an equally large spiritual progress make us happy? From what I know about people in countries ruled by fundamentalists, the answer is probably negative.
Our technological, scientific and spiritual progress make life more complex and probably reduce the level of our happiness.
To affirm or not to affirm is yet another question
The gurus of positive thinking often make us feel that we need to self-affirm. They show that writing down self-affirming thoughts can boost our performance in the task ahead of us. Few of them consider the effect on a long series of tasks. Suppose we self-affirm and succeed, we feel good about ourselves and affirm again. Now for some reason, we fail. We might get disillusioned about our results, our value as the affirmation, and the ability of self-affirmation to do anything. This will probably decrease our performance in subsequent tasks. The scientists that conducted one of such studies, noticed that there is a way to overcome this negative effect. If we are free to choose whether to self-affirm or not self-affirm, we tend to enjoy the effect of self-affirmation even if the outcome of the last experience was negative. Quite possibly we put the weight of the failure on a specific choice – not ourselves or the system. This allows us to feel in control and choose better the next time. Self-integrity is probably a required step for self-affirmation if we want to maintain a positive change.
Normal people make the obvious choices when asked to be or not to be. When asked which version of ourselves we choose to be, the answers are less obvious.
Happiness is not a milestone
I am not aware of any milestone that can automatically provide happiness. Quite on the contrary, reaching a milestone we usually see all of its limitations and how far the next milestone is. Then we usually set off for the next milestone. The celebration we have reaching each milestone is usually unproportionally small when compared to the length of the path that led to the achievement. Consequently, the approach that makes sense is enjoying the way, and more specifically focusing on the joy of here and now.
The price of happiness
It is easy to say that we need to enjoy here and now, stop blaming ourselves and others, and stop wishing to have things. The process is anything but easy and involves giving up a huge part of our ego and illusion of control. The things that may us happy are not necessarily the things we want. The things that make us full of purpose often deny us some of the simplest pleasures. Being authentic will not always affirm our ego or self-confidence. Paradoxically, to reach happiness we need, we often give up the plans we have for finding the happiness we want.
Giving up the illusion of control
We do not really need a deeply spiritual experience to give up the illusion of control. The steps can be deceivingly simple. We need to identify what we can and cannot control. Then we need to focus on the things we can influence. Quite often our fears guide us through the process. Once we identify our fears, we can see how reasonable they are and which part can be controlled. The progress can be deceiving. We may think that we are solving the problem, but if there are no new ideas and results we are probably ruminating. Affirmations and plans may help only as long as they are honest and detailed. Focusing on the things we can control we create a small progress, which we leverage it into a bigger progress. Then we can either succeed or fail and need to accept the result in any case. Doing the right thing has an intrinsic value, whatever the result is. I know that this paragraph sounds pretty straightforward, but there are thousands of books and courses that try to teach this.
Openness despite losses
When everything is good, it is relatively simple to stay open and mindful. When things fall apart, fight or flight response kicks in, and we naturally become less open. It is very hard to accept our defects and vulnerabilities, frustration and pain. As we become less open we experience less pain, but are less mindful and experience less joy. Accepting pain is a huge part of finding happiness. This controversial article shows an example of a person who was in a severe depression when his life was apparently good, and only accepting human suffering was capable of overcoming the depression. Reading the article reminded me of a story about young Buhdda leaving the palace after witnessing human suffering.
Happiness and learning
Most of the people I know learn to acquire specific skills and get a specific position. Even if the process succeeds, quite possibly no positions or milestones are powerful enough to fill us with joy or wonder. Quite often learning for the sake of learning, driven by curiosity and a sense of adventure may make us happy. So instead of focusing on reaching a particular goal as fast as possible, maybe we should try to optimize the learning experience, making it more pleasurable and purposeful.