The happy hunt

by Kristin on December 23, 2010

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by docbaty

What do you want this holiday season? I would love a new sweater (a gift certificate to Anthropologie would do the trick) and some books would be nice. But when it gets right down to it, I really just want to be happy. I want everyone to be happy, safe from the pain of the world. I’d forgo all the stuff for that—I think most of us would.

My string of recent downer posts might be no indication, but I’m really interested in happiness. Or maybe it’s because I’ve tasted sadness that I’m so fascinated by happiness. Either way, I’ve read my share of “happiness theory” articles, as well as books that examine what “true happiness” is and how we can achieve it. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time evaluating my own life: When have I been happiest? What was different about my life then? What can I do to have more of that now? (In many ways, these questions are at the heart of my whole Love List Project.)

But maybe our hunt for happiness is misguided. In response to my previous post (about trying to get in the Christmas spirit while surrounded by life’s less-than-sunny offerings), Susan left this comment:

I’ve been mulling over similar questions lately about sadness. Are we really doing ourselves a disservice living in an age of the great pursuit of happiness? Sadness helps us to grow in ways happiness never will. It’s contemplative and powerful, poignant, and true.

Are we doing ourselves a disservice by pursuing happiness?

It’s a great question, especially this time of year when so many people are running in circles trying to make themselves and the people they love happy. Maybe the perfect present will do the trick, or a whole pile of presents. Maybe if I bake dozens of sweets, or create an extra joyful playlist to pipe through the house. We think we can concoct just the right holiday mood—one that will help us forget about the sadness of the world for a while. But are we doing ourselves a disservice? Is our pursuit of happiness misguided, even out of control?

I’m not sure—I still have some more thinking to do on this—but my gut tells me that pursuing happiness isn’t wrong. We just need to carefully examine our definitions of happiness, and we need to make room for sadness in the mix. Maybe we’ve gotten too caught up in what society and advertising tell us will make us happy rather than what our heart tells us will make us happy. Maybe what we’re really so busy doing is running away from sadness rather than seeking true happiness.

Build relationships, seek experiences

If you’re curious about these issues and how they relate to your life, there are two books you might want to check out. One is Thrive, a new  book which I haven’t read yet but am looking forward to. In Thrive, author Dan Buettner looks at the areas of the world with the highest “gross national happiness,” examining what it is about those communities and societies that seems to make people happy.

While his general conclusions (from what I could gather from the NPR interview) aren’t at all surprising, they are not necessarily in line with the priorities and lifestyle of most Americans. In other words, we often don’t act on the truths we know. Two of Buettner’s big pieces of advice? Relationships are the key to lifelong happiness (the happiest people in America spend seven hours a day socializing!), and people are happier when they spend their time and money on experiences rather than stuff.

We also need to adjust our expectations when it comes to our ability to predict and control our happiness. In the fascinating book Stumbling On Happiness, author Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist, demonstrates that while we think we know what we want—what will make us happiest—most of those predictions are actually tricks of the mind. Our ability to imagine the future, and especially how we will feel about it when we get there, is enormously flawed. As a result, our strategies and efforts to attain that happiness tend to be flawed.

I’m not sure where that leaves me as Christmas arrives—hopefully with a slightly different perspective on my goals for the holiday season, some rearranged expectations, and a healthy approach to the new year. Where does it leave you?

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  • Genevieve

    I have to disagree that happiness fails to help us grow in ways that are powerful and poignant and true. I can count great moments of happiness as being among my most powerful teachers.

    And pursuing happiness? It’s natural! How sick would it be if we all went around pursuing sadness for the “personal growth” that would result? (Especially since life hands us enough already.)

    I think the pursuing, the studying, the theorizing might be the problem. My happiest moments never came as a result of my expectations or careful planning. They grew seemingly from nothing, while my back was turned. All I had to do was look over my shoulder and let it overwhelm me.

    Merry Christmas!

  • Young Mom

    I think you are really hitting on something when you ask if we are chasing what everyone says will make us happy. Sometimes it takes awhile to figure out what truly makes us happy, but only we really know that. I’ve found that my happiness has gotten more consistant as I’ve opened myself up to experience everything that happens, instead of discounting the “bad” or sad feelings. Living fully can be exhausting, but I’ve found it well worth it.

  • Susan

    Love this and very flattered to be mentioned :-) I completely agree it’s about perception. And also about taking action. Sadness or chronic discomfort can tell us:

    our jobs are all wrong for us
    our workout is a bad choice for our bodies
    we need more from our relationships
    we are ready to try something new

    I believe the pursuit of happiness is definitely right when motivated by our spirit, our intuition. And like you said, not by consumerism and people who don’t know nor care about our lives.

  • Paul Merrill

    I think you are totally right that there needs to be a mix – we *need* sadness in our lives, though we would never pursue it.

  • Kristin T.

    Genevieve, I think you’re right—happiness can teach us a lot…IF we don’t take it for granted. You have to really be able to see it, you know? And to understand how things could be different (ie worse). So many people tend to think we are *entitled* to happiness, even thought it’s just the *pursuit* of happiness that we’re entitled to. That sense of entitlement (and indignation when things go wrong) gets us into trouble.

    Young Mom, I agree—when we’re chasing after the wrong things life can be a bit of a roller coaster. I like that you referenced “consistent” happiness, set against a more realistic backdrop.

    Susan, thanks for making me think and inspiring a post! Being perceptive—listening to ourselves and responding accordingly—is so key. I can definitely relate to the short list of “learning moments” you included, and I completely agree with this: “I believe the pursuit of happiness is definitely right when motivated by our spirit, our intuition.”

    Paul, it’s true, there’s no need to pursue sadness—it seems to find us regularly enough on its own! Our job is to acknowledge it and learn from it.

  • The Modern Gal

    The pursuit of happiness is something I think about endlessly. I’ve thought about it, talked about it, listened to others talk about it, read about it, etc. I’ve never come to many conclusions about it, although the notions of time spent with others and spending money and effort on experiences rather than possessions seems pretty accurate.

    I’m reading a book I got free from church over Christmas that suggests happiness is a by-product in our quest for holiness, which did strike a chord with me — I usually do feel happy when I’m nurturing my relationship with God and making it a priority to live out his teachings.