Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.
I want you to live an exceptional life, but I don’t believe pursuing happiness will get you there.
This rubs against what society teaches us, I know. We live in a world that idolises happiness. From an early age, we hear words like those in Peter Pan: “Just think happy thoughts and you’ll fly.”
At that age, however, our emotional range is limited. We haven’t discovered the complexities, the chaos, of being alive—in the same way that we haven’t discovered the infinite colours beyond the primary colours in our pencil set. To be happy is an uncomplicated blessing for a child, and wonderfully so.
But as we become adults, pursuing the simplicity of happiness is a naïve view of fulfillment, and chasing it is costing us dearly.
To be human is to face questions in life so great they’re unanswerable. The complexity of being alive is so incomprehensible, it calls us to imagine our place within this gaping universe; to think about God and meaning, how we’re all connected, and what the point of it all is.
To be human is to have all of these unanswered questions outside of us, and to know so little about our inner landscape as well. To acknowledge that the realest things we experience, such as love and heartache and longing, are also the most undefinable. We limit them with simple, reductive words like “love” and “heartache” and “longing” because they’re too damn difficult to explain when the feeling has its way with us.
It’s a wild and infinitely complex experience to be human, and yet we continue to use the one-dimensional gauge of “happiness” to measure a great life. As if the messiness and pointlessness and richness of being alive can be overcome by a good holiday, fitting into those size eight jeans or landing that dream job.
When we value happiness as the benchmark of an exceptional life, we limit the beautiful spectrum of what we can feel and our ability to feel it. Where does “obsession” fall within the happiness spectrum? Or “rapture”? Or “wistfulness”, “incompleteness” or “despair”?
When we move within a society that’s happiness-oriented while holding ugly and undefined emotions close to our hearts, we feel like we’re not enough. As if we’re harbouring broken parts that don’t have a home, and we haven’t been given instructions for where to put them. These motley emotions are alien from the ambitions we hold for ourselves and a joyful life; and, with current rates of unhappiness being painfully high, there’s an awful lot of brokenness being silently carried around in our communities.
Perhaps, instead of happiness being the pursuit, we could consider wellbeing. Wellbeing is a promising yet puzzling concept, often substituted for happiness when it shouldn’t be. Where happiness unsustainably suggests an absence of “negative” feelings, wellbeing is an equilibrium of all our emotions. It is a balanced and holistic spectrum that acknowledges every aspect of being human, and one that is so central to our state of mind that the World Health Organisation recognises wellbeing in its definition of mental health:
“Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”
Wellbeing is realising your potential while embracing the challenges of life. When we pursue wellbeing, we reframe our thinking around our difficulties. Rather than being pesky inconveniences—or devastating blows—they provide an opportunity to grow; where we can summon all of the strengths and smarts we can muster and expand ourselves to rise to their occasion. How gratifying is the feeling of overcoming a particularly thorny challenge? It’s the triumph of our spirit over diversity.
To prioritise wellbeing is to embrace our lives in their totality. Rather than seeing that holiday, that party, those charming new shoes as an antidote to life’s difficulties, we’re given perspective on them. These are welcome and wonderful, but fleeting joys. We’re better off putting our energy into building our resources and resilience so that we can flourish. Investing in those cherished relationships that allow us to be really seen and heard. Making time to study that art class that increases our skills, and our view of what we’re capable of. Committing to a daily meditation practice to develop our sense of self.
Wellbeing values the kaleidoscope of emotions that fill our hearts. We see the importance of navigating grief, of holding our sadness, and in making space to untangle the knotty emotions that emerge. And, when a challenging emotion arises and surpasses the normal intensity of life, wellbeing acknowledges the importance of seeking outside support for help. To ask for a hand with the weight of those broken pieces we’re holding.
Most significantly, when we pursue wellbeing, we pursue the fullness of the human experience.