Yesterday I published a post with a clipping from The Sunday Times. It showed a quotation from Robert Rowland Smith, a noted philosopher, who questioned the idea of the “pursuit of happiness”.
“You don’t find happiness by trying to be happy”
I’m not sure I quite agree with him on this point. In fact, I’d argue the very opposite. When you’re unhappy, you have the free will and intellectual capability to attempt to discover the reason for your unhappiness.
In turn, once you’ve found that reason, you can attempt to counteract it. If it’s because you’re lonely, you can make an effort to become more sociable. If it’s because your job is boring, you can look for a more exciting role.
Saying that you can’t “try” to be happy suggests that we lack any control over our life’s path. If we can’t even take control over something as fundamental as the level of pleasure and satisfaction in our life, what do we have control over?
“That would be like trying to overcome your hunger by thinking about eating”
Rowland Smith uses this analogy: eating is to hunger as finding happiness is to the desire to be happy. One satisfies the other. But the analogy is completely flawed in its logic. Thinking about eating when you’re already hungry is just going to exacerbate the problem. Thinking about your own happiness, though, as established above, can have a very positive impact on your happiness levels.
It is only when you simply ruminate on your unhappiness that you will make your desire to be happy all the worse.
So, let’s revise the statement:
“Trying to find happiness by ruminating on your current unhappiness is like trying to overcome your hunger by thinking about eating”.
Hm. Less catchy, I think.
“Just focus on doing what you love”
The problem of just doing things that you love is that they start to lose their shiny-new appeal. I, for one, love eating chocolate, and often enjoy spending days in my pyjamas watching slushy TV. Both of these activities, though, don’t seem so fun when you start doing them too often. After five days eating Häagen-Dazs and not leaving the house, I’m fairly sure I’d be climbing the walls, and desperate for vitamins, oxygen, adrenaline and endorphins.
Last week, though, I was doing something that doesn’t particularly fascinate me (the audit of a freight forwarding company) and yet because I was so busy I didn’t have time to stop and question whether or not I was happy. With hindsight, I was. So for me, it wasn’t a case of “doing what I love” but of being challenged, mentally and time-wise, to get the work done. Love the work or loathe it, I was happy.
“Stopping what you hate”
In a similar vein, last week taught me that perhaps I don’t need to stop doing something I thought I hated. More specifically, I need to stop doing (or learn to live with) the aspects I particularly hate about these things. In my job I hate the down periods, when you’re stretching work out to fill the day. I’m not in love with every single part of my job, but if I can just learn to live with (or get rid of) the especially annoying bits, I could enjoy the rest.
And they all lived happily ever after…
Perhaps being happy, then, is more about realising that your life doesn’t have to be (and probably shouldn’t be) happy 100% if the time. Some of the best times in life come from being challenged by the less pleasant things, and learning how to survive them. Perhaps we should stop looking for the peak. The summit of the happiness mountain is an unattainable destination, and we can’t spend our lives grumpy because we haven’t “arrived” there yet.
I’d say I’m around 75% of the way up the mountain, and the view looks pretty good from here.