The pursuit of happiness myth which causes unhappiness
The American Constitution contains the phrase they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Unfortunately since the 1960s, the phrase pursuit of happiness has been redefined as avoiding reality and inevitably avoiding oneself. Being unhappy is now considered by many to be a mental illness. Being happy, which allegedly is one’s optimal state, when taken to an extreme, resembles a drug induced euphoria. The American Constitution had a profound effect on the world’s ideas, this redefinition has a profound negative effect on many people. People are now denying reality in an attempt to be happy, this is not what the American founders meant. Our modern society in its pursuit of happiness means they are running away from themselves, which is not what the American founding fathers intended. Let’s first examine what the American founding fathers meant when they talked about happiness.
Happiness - a state of well-being and contentment.
Happiness is synonymous with contentment. Contentment can be defined as a sense of inner peace. That means without inner conflict. This internal state exists somewhere within us, a religious person might call it a soul. A neuroscientist would call it consciousness, which is created by all of the parts of the human brain acting as one. Whether you are a religious person or a neuroscientist, this soul or consciousness comes from within your brain. It is generated internally as opposed to externally.
By contrast, modern Western society teaches that contentment comes from external sources. People who state, I don’t want to be surrounded by negativity are saying external circumstances dictate their internal state. Advertising or marketing is an industry which sells products on the premise that purchasing a certain product will change your internal emotional state. Purchase a certain brand of beverage and it is implied that it will change your internal emotional state. Even more amazing, dishwashing liquid or chewing gum can change these internal emotional states. I was intrigued by an advertisement for a chewing gum, its advertisement claimed that chewing it can give one a sense of freedom. With my overactive imagination, I envisioned B1 stealth bombers being loaded with this chewing gum. Then these B1 stealth bombers would swoop down and drop this freedom chewing gum on middle eastern countries. Then there would be millions of happy Arabs chewing this gum with their new found sense of freedom.
In school, we were told repeatedly we should feel blessed for living in a free and prosperous society. Back then, Communism was the boogie man, they lived in a dark place where everyone allegedly was unhappy. Later when I went enjoyed a government paid tour of a war-torn country, I started to question modern Western values. First hand I saw a developed country which had been driven back 300 years. There was no electricity or running water, people were forced to return to a more primitive state. When I looked beyond the broken buildings and rubble, I asked myself, are these people less happy than Westerners? The answer I arrived at is no. That modern Western society has extremely high rates of youth suicide, reflects a discontented society. What has caused this discontentment?
When the American founding fathers talked about the pursuit of happiness, what did they mean? Pursuit means something which you are attempting to obtain. The American founding fathers were pragmatic, by pursuing this happiness, they didn’t mean one should avoid reality. Also by using the word pursuit, they knew that it wasn’t an achievable goal but it is something one should strive for. That contentment is achieved, not by actually achieving the state of happiness but by striving for it. Somehow the pursuit of happiness/contentment turned into an escape from reality.
All living creature inherently want to move away from pain towards pleasure. What differentiates humans from other creatures is we have large frontal lobes where we have the potential to overcome these emotions which originate in our reptile brain. The definition of courage is not someone who is fearless but someone who is able to move through this fear to accomplish things.
Life is difficult because it is a series of problems, and the process of confronting and solving problems is a painful one. Problems, depending on their nature, evoke in us many uncomfortable feelings: frustration, grief, sadness, loneliness, guilt, regret, anger, fear, anxiety, anguish or despair. These feelings are often as painful as any kind of physical suffering. Indeed, it is because of the pain that events or conflicts engender in us that we call them problems. Yet it is in this whole process of meeting and solving problems that life finds its meaning. Problems call forth our courage and wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and our wisdom. Problems are the cutting edge that distinguishes between success and failure. It is only because of problems ( struggles, challenges) that we grow mentally and spiritually.
The alternative – not to meet the demands of life on life’s terms – means we will end up losing more often than not. Most people attempt to skirt problems rather than meet them head-on. We attempt to get out of them rather than suffer through them. Indeed, the tendency to avoid problems and the emotional suffering inherent in them is the primary basis of all psychological illness. And since most of us have this tendency to a greater or lesser degree, most of us lack complete mental health. Those who are most healthy learn not to dread but actually to welcome problems. Although triumph isn’t guaranteed each time we face a problem in life, those who are wise are aware that it is only through the pain of confronting and resolving problems that we learn and grow.” The Road Less Traveled and Beyond: Spiritual Growth in an Age of Anxiety
The problems which M Scott Peck talks about can be external ones or internal ones. We inherently want to avoid addressing these problems we want to avoid pain. Ironically this desire to avoid pain results in greater problems developing which inevitably results in greater pain than the original pain we were trying to avoid. Often this avoidance of pain occurs subconsciously. Recently, I need to ask a favor from someone, when I had the opportunity to ask for the favor I instead procrastinated. This resulted in uncertainty and anxiety. When I finally stopped procrastinating and asked the person for the favor, knowing the answer, I was able to move on with my life. If I intentionally kept the answer as unknown, which procrastination does, in a sense, I am deceiving myself. I am avoiding the pain of possible rejection or disappointment.
This theme of having the courage to confront our problems isn’t unique idea. It is ironic that in our modern world, many practice meditation to indirectly escape from reality which isn’t its intended purpose.
We do not meditate in order to be comfortable. In other words, we don’t meditate in order to always, all the time, feel good. I imagine shockwaves are passing through you as you read this because so many people come to meditation to simply “feel better.” However, the purpose of meditation is not to feel bad, you’ll be glad to know. Rather, meditation gives us the opportunity to have an open, compassionate attentiveness to whatever is going on. The meditative space is like the big sky—spacious, vast enough to accommodate anything that arises. How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind
I see the purpose of meditation to be able to look at myself as I really am without my ego filtering things.
In meditation, you are moving closer and closer to yourself, and you begin to understand yourself so much more clearly. You begin to see clearly without a conceptual analysis because, with regular practice, you see what you do over and over and over and over again. You see that you replay the same tapes over and over and over in your mind. The name of the partner might be different, the employer might be different, but the themes are somewhat repetitious. Meditation helps us to clearly see ourselves and the habitual patterns that limit our life. You begin to see your opinions clearly. You see your judgments. You see your defense mechanisms. Meditation deepens your understanding of yourself. How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind
I am not an expert in meditation but we see it strips away the illusions of ourselves and the illusions of the world. This deeper understanding of ourselves as Freud puts it means to bring the subconscious to the surface. When our subconscious or true natures come to the surface, it can be terrifying for many since our illusions have been broken. Once these illusions have been broken, sometimes one can get insight, and what we see can be terrifying. And yet, when we are nonjudgmental and honest about ourselves, this terror disappears.
We attempt to avoid seeing these realities using two methods:
The first is by physically relocating themselves to avoid unpleasantness. An example of this is many cities are passing laws to remove homeless people out of public view. Even if the homeless person isn’t harassing you by begging, he scares you. The reason why he scares you is because, on some level, you realize it could be you. By hiding the homeless person, we hide our fears. As our modern society becomes more removed from reality, we attempt we attempt to relocate all sorts of unpleasant things. For example, how animals are raised and butchered for food. Our food comes in neat, sanitized packages, it comes with nice labels like range free eggs. This brings up images of chickens running around, happily laying eggs for us. This presumably makes me feel better about eating eggs.
The second way we attempt to avoid unpleasantness is by avoiding thoughts which allegedly cause unpleasant emotions. Earlier I talked about how I was feeling anxiety. Instead of probing and examining what causes this anxiety, society encourages us to avoid this unpleasantness with things like safe spaces. People proudly state, I intentionally avoid negativity. On a deeper level, these safe spaces attempt to isolate ourselves from the part of our brains which contain our animal natures. This doesn’t mean we should not act on our animal impulses but we should be honest and admit they are there.
To avoid these unpleasant emotions, people have switched to chemicals. Over ten percent of adults in western countries are using some sort of antidepressant. According to this article, How Antidepressants Work In The Brain, antidepressants work by somehow restructuring the neurotransmitters in the brain. I am not a medical expert but I interpret this to mean it blocks neurotransmitters which cause unpleasant feelings. This means we are avoiding issues. Ironically, with the combination of legal and illegal drugs, most western countries are more reliant on chemicals than when the British were selling opium to the Chinese. China attempted to eliminate opium addiction by contrast, in most western countries, I can walk into a doctor’s office and they will supply me with a script to get some chemicals.
Obviously, if opium or antidepressants have been prescribed correctly, they should be used. I am just pointing out that 10% plus of the adult population being dependent on some sort of chemical implies that underlying issues are not being addressed. If one is unhappy, avoid the pain, get some pills.
Emotions originate from the lower regions of the brain. People instinctively think that emotions are linked to external events. I might say, that man is making me angry. It is how I am interpreting the actions of the man which are causing to be angry. If I perceive the man is threatening my territory or boundaries, I will feel angry. If there is uncertainty or doubt in my life, I will feel anxiety or fear. These emotions are real, as in there is a chemical reaction in my brain causing them but are they logical?
If there is a large, vicious Doberman dog running towards me, it is logical that I should feel fear. If someone has actually wronged me, for example, I was ripped off by an online merchant, it is logical I feel anger. Sometimes the cause of the emotion might be more difficult to identify. Earlier, I talked about how I felt anxiety. First I had to identify that is what I was feeling, yes that is the funny feeling in my stomach, that is why I am having problems sleeping. Next, I had to identify what was causing this feeling. In this cause, I needed to ask someone for help, I was worried that the person would refuse to help me. Instinctively I preferred to be in a state of uncertainty as opposed to actual rejection. When I choose to take action and overcome my natural instincts, the anxiety disappeared.
With anger, first ask, is my perception correct. Possibly it might be incorrect. The next step is to then ask, is what can I do to rectify this emotion? Sometimes anger is caused by unrealistic expectations which result in disappointment. Did I set myself up? If the anger is caused by someone wronging me, I can ask, what type of action should I take? What will be the cost of this action?
courage - mental or moral strength to venture, persevere and withstand danger, fear or difficulty.
The original definition of courage meant to be able to take action despite experiencing fear. The modern definition of courage has been redefined to fearlessness. The modern definition looks at a courageous person externally. Externally this person might appear to be fearless. In my opinion, this redefinition of courage is society wanting to avoid what are perceived as negative emotions. Instead of crediting the courageous person of being able to control himself despite feeling fear, claim he lacks fear. General Rommel when he decided to take part in the assassination attempt on Hitler knew what the consequences for himself and his family would be if it failed. Obviously he must have felt fear. He displayed courage when he decided to act despite his fear.
On the other hand, courage can also mean having restraint. When I was younger, I felt I needed to defend every argument against me or slight. When I examined this I realized that in some aspects I was acting upon insecurity, on how others perceived me, so in a roundabout way it could be viewed as cowardice. Again whether practicing restraint is cowardice or courage can only be determined by self-honesty. Recently I was complaining to someone about the inequality and sexism of violence against women laws, the person replied that there is nothing one can do about it. I retorted, yes there is lots we can do about it but we choose not act, that is why there is a problem in the first place. When I stated that, the person flinched as if I hit him. The point isn’t whether or not we should act on our beliefs but that we should be honest with ourselves when we fail to act.
Despite coming from two different backgrounds, one Christian and one Buddhist, this is the underlying theme of both M Scott Peck and Pema Chödrön, the common theme is most of our problems are caused by avoiding pain. This avoidance of pain is due to us avoiding confronting problems.
Earlier, when I was procrastinating on asking a friend for a favor this caused me to feel anxiety. This anxiety affected me both physically and mentally. The physical effects were a nervousness in my stomach the mental affects where thoughts in my head causing sleeplessness. Ironically, I didn’t realize that these effects were caused by my procrastination. It wasn’t till I started to explore what was causing these feelings that I determined what the cause was. In hindsight, it is obvious what caused my anxiety but at the time it wasn’t obvious since I am extremely good at lying to myself.
Here lies the paradox, we should attempt to pursue happiness or contentment but at the same time we should realize that the goal is unobtainable. A craftsman attempts to create a perfectly round table but it is an impossibility, the only perfect circles that exist are within our mind. But it is the craftsman attempting to create this impossibility which creates purpose within our lives. The lie created by many religions and modern society is similar, that it is possible for us to create this heaven on earth if we would only follow a set of impossible rules. And yet it is this false belief which at their core deny human nature which causes disappointment and emptiness. It is having the courage to overcome problems which give our life meaning.
When people ask me how I am, I often answer I am dreadfully unhappy. Their faces show concern, shock, confusion or revulsion. I then reply, don’t worry, I have accepted my unhappiness, therefore, I am content within my unhappiness. We live in the safest time in human history where even the poorest people compared to previous generations large amounts of material possessions. Paradoxically, in western countries, record numbers of people live with fear, depression, and anxiety. A simplistic explanation is that this is caused by a consumeristic culture. The belief that certain products or ideas can create positive emotions.
On a deeper level, the consumeristic culture is a consequence of a society which no longer values self-examination and self-honesty. Self examination reveals unpleasant truths about ourselves. The chewing gum which promised freedom isn’t bad, it is my belief that this chewing gum can make me experience freedom which is harmful. The pursuit of happiness isn’t harmful, it is the belief that this state can be actually achieved which is harmful. The belief that constant happiness can actually be achieved originated in the drug induced culture of the 1960s, drug induced means living in a fantasy. Yet to avoid reality, are minds are perfectly capable of doing that without narcotics. Science is unlocking the mysteries of the human mind yet paradoxically we choose to delude ourselves possibly more than in the past. The challenge is finding the courage to question your own beliefs or thoughts which might be delusions and realizing the pursuit of happiness is an unachievable goal.