Who doesn’t enjoy being happy? Naturally, any of us would rather be happy than sad. Yet ancient wisdom—and contemporary psychological research— tells us something we are in danger of forgetting: that if we pursue personal happiness as a goal of life, it will elude us.
In fact, it’s no mere coincidence that at a time in our social evolution when we have been sold the crazy idea that we are entitled to happiness, our society is experiencing a mental health crisis characterised by epidemics of depression and anxiety.
Of course, if you were never happy, that might be a reason to take a look at the kind of life you’re living. But happiness, for most of us, is a fleeting, ephemeral emotional state. The bluebird of happiness lands on our shoulder and we feel terrific and then, almost before we realise what’s happened, it’s flown away to pay a brief visit to someone else.
One of the most wonderful things about being human is that we have access to a full spectrum of emotions for responding to and dealing with whatever life throws at us, and every point on that spectrum is as authentic, as valuable, as any other. So why would we privilege happiness above all the other colours in the emotional spectrum—especially when, on reflection, it turns out to be the one that has least to teach us about what it means to be fully human?
Most of us discover, early in life, that the greatest teachers tend to be the so-called “dark” emotions: sadness, pain, disappointment, a sense of failure and loss. No wonder “we grow through pain” has become such a widely-accepted part of our folklore.
It’s also worth remembering that no point on the emotional spectrum would make any sense without the context, the contrasts, provided by all the others. Without sadness, we would never know what happiness is.
Yet sadness, however justified it might be by circumstances or natural mood swings, is too often and too quickly put under the microscope in case it turns out to be an early sign of the disease we have learnt to call “clinical depression.” (This is a bit like our penchant for describing a light head cold as the ’flu.) Some forms of depression are serious illnesses requiring specialised medical treatment, no doubt about that, but the boundaries of its diagnosis seem to have become so elastic, we are a bit inclined to lump together every kind of emotional trough, from “the blues’” to a perfectly normal melancholia, and call them “depression.”
Yet the truth is that to be fully human—to be “normal,” to be healthy—is to be occasionally engulfed by waves of grief or sadness, stymied by feelings of despair, paralysed by doubt or crushed by disappointment.
But there’s another reason why the pursuit of personal happiness is a wild goose chase: it encourages a selfish, self-absorbed attitude that flies in the face of the deepest truth about the source of life’s richest satisfactions—that we gain more satisfaction from giving, than receiving. In fact, the most fulfilling life is a life devoted to the service of others.
Knowing that (and we all know it, deep inside ourselves) why would we deny ourselves those deep satisfactions in the relentless pursuit of a superficial, fleeting emotional state called happiness?