Should Happiness Really Be the Goal?


Happiness_is_by_aurelixAccording to renowned psychiatrist Peter Kramer, happiness isn’t the opposite of depression.

Resilience is.

I’ve always loved that reminder because the word “happiness” makes me uneasy.

It’s not that I want to be unhappy, or I don’t want to be happy. It’s that every time I make happiness my goal, I become very unhappy. Like that famous study about suppressing thoughts of white polar bears. When everyone was instructed to think about anything but a white polar bear, they all thought about a white polar bear.

To be completely honest, I even hate the “life is good” t-shirts.

I prefer the “life is crap” ones, such as the one with the cruise ship about to plow over the guy in the canoe. Whenever my husband wears that one, it puts me in a good mood.

I smiled at the discussion on my online depression community, Project Beyond Blue, called “The Pursuit of Happiness.” Maggie, a young mother of five kids and one of the group’s administrators, had just read “Eat, Pray, Love” – about author Elizabeth Gilbert’s quest to “leave behind all the trappings of modern American success (marriage, house in the country, career) and find, instead, what she truly wanted from life” (the Amazon description). Maggie was a tad frustrated by the entire concept. She wrote:

“It’s probably because I’m a cradle Catholic, but I found this whole journey of hers to be innately selfish and egocentric. I mean, we’re all human. Who wouldn’t be happy with no money worries for a year, doing whatever you wanted, with whomever you wanted, wherever you wanted? I think even a week of this lifestyle would be enough to make me feel “happy.” But this year-long journey of self-discovery is totally unrealistic to me. It’s like looking at someone’s Facebook page that just loves to put up pictures of their latest vacations, or their brand new, custom-built home. Yes, there is some envy mixed in there. I fully admit that. But my fear is that too many people these days are buying into this whole notion of ‘do whatever makes you happy.’”

I laughed out loud at that because I remember exactly where I was when I picked up “Eat, Pray, Love” the first time. I had snuck out of my inpatient program at Johns Hopkins Hospital. That’s right, I broke out of the psychiatric ward to meet my husband and spend an afternoon with him. Just him. No kids. We hadn’t spent a few hours alone with each other in months, maybe years. So we strolled around the inner harbor of Baltimore and ambled to the Barnes & Noble right there, in front of the paddleboats.

I picked up the book because I had heard about it. However, as soon as I read the back cover, I got queasy, and quickly put it back down. I remember thinking to myself, “I am about as far away from her notion of happiness as Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s green diet is to fried Oreos.” It all seemed so unrealistic and, like Maggie said, self-absorbed. Who wouldn’t want a life without commitments? Who wouldn’t want a week of Saturdays? And even if I could pull it off—a life without commitments, a life of Saturdays—is that really what I should strive for? Where would the world be today if everyone strived for a life of Saturdays? Would we have benefited from the contributions of extraordinary people like Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Teresa? Their lives included lots and lots of Mondays, weeks full of just stressful, painful Monday mornings.

Happiness expert Gretchen Rubin tackles this indictment in her blog post, “Happiness Myth No. 10: The Biggest Myth—It’s Selfish and Self-Centered to Try to Be Happier.” She writes:

“Myth No. 10 is the most pernicious myth about happiness. It comes in a few varieties. One holds that “In a world so full of suffering, you can be happy only if you’re callous and self-centered.” Another one is ‘Happy people become wrapped up in their own pleasure; they’re complacent and uninterested in the world.’

Wrong. Studies show that, quite to the contrary, happier people are more likely to help other people, they’re more interested in social problems, they do more volunteer work, and they contribute more to charity. They’re less preoccupied with their personal problems. By contrast, less-happy people are more apt to be defensive, isolated, and self-absorbed, and unfortunately, their negative moods are catching (technical name: emotional contagion). Just as eating your dinner doesn’t help starving children in India, being blue yourself doesn’t help unhappy people become happier.”

Gretchen’s book The Happiness Project is packed full of impressive research why striving for happiness benefits everyone, and she backs it up with her personal experience. When she is feeling happy, she finds it easier to notice other people’s problems. She has more energy to take action, to tackle the sad or difficult issues. She is less consumed with herself. In working on her happiness project she came to an intellectual breakthrough that she calls her Second Splendid Truth: “One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy; One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.”

I get that. And I have tons of respect for Gretchen.

But I think there’s a definite difference between what positive psychologists and happiness experts like Gretchen are saying, and the philosophy sold to us in Gilbert’s book, and evidenced in a new generation of noncommittal happiness searchers.

It comes down to meaning.

Holocaust survivor and late psychiatrist Viktor Frankl explains it best in his classic, “Man’s Search for Meaning”:

“To the European, it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’ Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically. As we see, a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy, last but not least, through actualizing the potential meaning inherent and dormant in a given situation.

This need for a reason is similar to another specifically human phenomenon—laughter. If you want anyone to laugh you have to provide him with a reason, e.g., you have to tell him a joke. In no way is it possible to evoke real laughter by urging him, or having him urge himself, to laugh. Doing so would be the same as urging people posed in front of a camera to say ‘cheese,’ only to find that in the finished photographs their faces are frozen in artificial smiles.”

Frankl’s laughing analogy is perfect.

In Gretchen’s experiment, happiness is a byproduct of the commitments she has made—to herself, to her family, and to her community. Her happiness is a direct result of very hard work, not a life of Saturdays.

I’m not even going to use the term happiness for me—again, because, when I do, I the primal part of my brain fires up and I start twitching. But peace or resilience, as Kramer says, yes, that is available to me as a result of investing myself into the world, by tackling all of my Mondays as best I know how, and by honoring my commitments day in and day out.

Join the discussion, “The Pursuit of Happiness,” on Project Beyond Blue, the new depression community.

Originally published on Sanity Break at Everyday

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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3 Responses
  1. Hi Therese,

    I couldn’t agree more. Your narrative and citations about resilience, finding meaning, the analogy of laughing, and contrasting the concepts of non-committal Saturdays with stressful and painful Mondays are . . . brilliant.

    It sounds so hollow and self-serving when someone says (usually a parent speaking to or about their grown-up child), “I just want(ed) you to be happy.” As if that is the only and highest objective, or qualifies as justification or absolution for any or every shortcoming or well-intentioned but misguided deed.

    Life IS crap, but it’s also good; it is neither all the time. I’m not criticizing your attitude about slogans (I don’t like wearing even the modest advertising logos clothing designers attach to their products: I’m not a billboard.) But is it not important to seek balance? It’s trite, but isn’t it true: without lows, we wouldn’t experience highs? Although, I gladly forego the extremes for a more moderate and consistent oscillation.

    When I see the happy face pictured on the coffee mug accompanying your post, I’m always reminded of the scene in the movie, “Forrest Gump” where he draws the eyes and smile in the mud on one of the extras. The recollection of the movie makes me smile.

    I think happiness and depression each involve elements of self-absorption, selfishness, and egocentricity. But now I’ve wandered into deep water, way over my head, and better resurface to get some air.

    Thank you “to the stars and back,” for confronting all your Mondays, and all you do for the rest of us. Shalom