Western society is obsessed with the idea of happiness. The media, the arts and even education are permeated with the concept that our goal in life is to achieve a state of bliss loosely called happiness. This is not new, though. Aristotle, more than 2000 years ago, said that all men really want is to be happy and all of our choices and actions have this ultimate goal. Aristotle didn’t say this was right, he just stated that this is how men are, happiness is what we (think) we want.
Of course, none of us want to be unhappy, however, this eternal quest for happiness is more of a trap than something that we can actually achieve and sustain. We can actually define unhappiness as a state of ‘unpleasureness’, undesirability and emotional, financial or physical distress. Notwithstanding, happiness is NOT the opposite! We tend to believe it is though, and that’s the problem! In other words, it’s easy to pinpoint what makes us unhappy, but the opposite will not guarantee happiness.
Most of the problems we face as a modern western society are related to associating happiness with pleasure. Eating too much, oversleeping, indulging in excess are all symptoms of associating pleasure with happiness (hedonism).
Contradictorily, happiness is promised as a result of achieving success in life – and that’s “in the future”. Only when (and if) you are a successful person you will be completely happy. That’s the message we get through our educational system and the media. So there we have a big conflict. We want to be happy now, but we can’t be really happy as long as we are successful, so until we get there, what do we do? should we accept our temporary unhappiness? Or should we indulge in small pleasures to feel “ok” while we’re climbing the ladder?
The answer of course is none of the above. Happiness, real happiness, has nothing to with success (neither with pleasure). So we shouldn’t search for pleasure in the things we do or try to be successful in life? Funny that people have actually have asked me that! This mindset is a result of the belief that the goal of life is to be happy, how couldn’t it be?!
Except that happiness is not (should not!) be our goal! When you’re not trying to be happy all the time and when you don’t think happiness is your endgame in life, your perspective shifts. Suddenly you’re not stressing anymore about having pleasure all the time and you don’t associate your future achievements with a feeling that you should be able to produce in the present.
The thing with pleasure is that it’s a bottomless pit, it doesn’t provide real happiness, only sensations and it’s finite. As humans we need pleasure, but as Seneca wisely said happiness is not attained through pleasures but through virtue.
Our goals, the success we plan to achieve in the future, have the purpose of bringing us more stability, money and satisfaction, which can also be associated with pleasure. Mostly, we attain success to guarantee our life quality and avoid unhappiness, but we do not draw happiness from it.
Happy people, real happy people, share a few traits: they have inner peace, they don’t usually engage in conflict with others, they do not feel victimized (they assume responsibility) and they don’t need pleasure all the time. Happiness is mostly a mindset, you feel happy when you’re at peace with yourself and the world, when you don’t have inner or external conflicts and you feel you’re in control of your life.
What’s interesting is that to reach this level of consciousness you don’t need to “live your life to the fullest” in the sense of having pleasure all (or most) of the time and also you don’t necessarily have to reach socially accepted levels of success. I’m a big advocate of being successful and financially independent, however, I want to make it clear, the reason for that is not that I think success will “bring” happiness. Sucess brings “others things”, as for happiness, it’s something else related to your inner world. You should strive to be happy regardless of who you are and what you have.
When you’re able to dissociate happiness from all of the other “things” that fill your life, you have the chance to really let that inner peace set in. All the conflicts, the obstacles, the difficulties, they don’t make you unhappy, you deal with them responsibly and calmly while your inner world is untouched.