Thomas Fiffer wonders whether happiness is hard to achieve because we’ve evolved to oppose it.
So I’ve been thinking …
Such a dangerous activity …
It occurred to me that the humans who survived in prehistoric times were the ones who could best anticipate threats to their existence—which were an ever present factor in daily life. Being caught unaware or unprepared meant ending up dead. Staying alive meant staying vigilant, or living in a perpetual state of anxiety, worry, and fear. Nature, the environment, predators, food and water sources—all these were utterly beyond our control, and the more we lived in anticipation of disaster or extinction, the more likely we were to escape it. Concepts such as enjoyment and leisure, the freedom (or pressure these days) to pursue one’s goals and dreams, or simply relaxing because “life is good” are modern ideas made possible by a degree of physical and economic security our ancestors couldn’t possibly imagine. Happiness would have been foreign to the proverbial caveman, who I suspect may have kicked back for a fleeting moment to savor his fresh kill … until the hungry wolves started howling.
Today we’re hit with a double whammy. We’re bombarded with the message that happiness is not only crucial but also normal, told there’s something wrong with us (possibly requiring prescription medication) if we’re not happy or even not happy enough, and whole fields of study such as psychiatry, psychology, and pharmacology, as well as countless life coaches and self-help writers cater to our overwhelming need to find the formula for being happy. Do we really need a happiness industry?
But what if we’re not really meant to be happy, especially not all the time? What if a certain amount of anxiety is healthy? What if we’re programmed to worry, and since we’re no longer worried about getting eaten, we transfer the worry to less life-threatening and more frivolous concerns? What if we’re wired to sweat the small stuff? And what if happiness is not the holy grail but just another emotion we experience at times in life along with all the others? A feeling we can enjoy but don’t need to be actively seeking or medicating ourselves to create?
Brené Brown has advanced the idea that we can find happiness by embracing our vulnerability, acknowledging our fears, eliminating the shame we feel about our imperfections, and learning that our inability to control outcomes is OK. It’s a refreshing approach and one that relieves us of both the pressure of being happy and pretending we are to the world.
Another key to feeling happy is feeling accepted, which creates a catch-22. We don’t like to be around unhappy people, so the more unhappy we are, the less accepted we will be. Unhappiness leads to marginalization which leads to more unhappiness, and the more we appear desperate for acceptance, the more likely it is we will be shunned. Self-acceptance, including acceptance of our own unhappiness as part of our flow of experience and not an unnatural, unhealthy state requiring corrective treatment, is the only thing that can break the cycle.
I’m not suggesting we give up on happiness. We all know it’s a wonderful feeling. But spending out time and resources on valuable activities, such as maintaining our health, being present for our children, making contributions to society, and leaving a legacy to the world, are, in my opinion, much more important than trying to fix ourselves so we can be happy. Those activities also generate feelings of accomplishment and fulfillment, which though they are not the core of happiness, are two of its essential components.
The bottom line is: Let’s put happiness in perspective. We’re not biologically programmed to be happy, and we can make ourselves crazy in the quest for constant bliss. By focusing on important and meaningful activities, we can create rich lives for ourselves that enrich the lives of others. And if that’s the best we can do, let’s try to be happy with it.