4.4. The Pursuit of Happiness

Everybody wants to be happy…but even the happiness industry is doing it wrong.

Everybody wants to be happy.

In the past two decades, there’s been an explosion of tips, tricks, and happiness hacks, spanning the genres of psychology, spirituality, and self-help.

There’s some good stuff in there—I don’t mean to disparage that entire effort.

But the emergence of this huge happiness industry makes me wonder: what’s it all for?

Why do we have to struggle so hard to be happy? And who decided that all these little tweaks and tricks are the best way to deal with that problem?

I think most people who are unhappy have good reasons to be.

Our lives are often draining, stressful, exhausting, lonely, dehumanizing, tedious, and alienating.

Trying to trick yourself into being happy anyway doesn’t deal with the real problem—which is we live in a society that frequently treats people like garbage.

I’m all for being as happy as we can be. But happiness has to be pursued authentically.

It can’t come at the expense of suppressing or deactivating our negative emotions, and artificially inflating our positive emotions.

Trying to do that is doubly harmful. Because not only does it lead us away from dealing with the stuff in the world that really does suck, and really should make us unhappy—it also leads us away from listening to and learning from our emotions.

Emotions are supposed to be helpful. They’re supposed to be telling us something.

Of course, they don’t always do that in practice. Sometimes we’re happy when we shouldn’t be, or unhappy when we shouldn’t be. Or we overreact or underreact.

Listen to your emotions. Hear them out. Maybe you’re unhappy right now because you really should be motivated to change something in your life.

But don’t just accept what they’re telling you. Ask yourself: is this an appropriate response? Is this a proportional response?

The goal shouldn’t be to be happy all the time. As appealing as that sounds…that’s an immature fantasy. And it’s a dangerous one too.

Because it leads you away from two far more worthy goals: (1) working to improve the conditions around you, and (2) having healthy, appropriate, proportional emotional responses to what’s happening to you.

In the end, happiness is just a fallible pointer that things are going well for you. Unhappiness is a fallible pointer that things aren’t going well for you. That’s it.

It’s up to us to figure out when those emotions are on target, and when they’re leading us astray.

It’s up to us to ask ourselves: why am I unhappy right now? Is it an authentic, accurate reaction? Or is it because I made up my mind a long time ago that all these various things have to happen in order for me to be happy, and now one of them hasn’t happened, so now I can’t be happy?

Letting yourself feel the full range of your emotions, letting yourself be moved to make the world a better place, and getting skilled at learning when your emotions are being helpful or unhelpful is a much more fulfilling way to live than trying—and failing—to force yourself to be happy all the time.

 

This is the 64th in a series of over 150 videos about how to create real, lasting social change. Click here for a list of all titles, videos, and transcripts.

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