Why I Stopped Trying to Be Happy

“I’m an American and I have the right to be happy, gum-dummit!” Isn’t that inalienable? I get life, liberty, and to pursue happiness. It’s an American ideal that we strive for happiness.

Is happiness a worthwhile pursuit? Is it an achievable goal? The more I’ve sought, the more I’ve discovered that happiness is a fleeting state. And to pursue it leaves me under-satisfied and feeling a little bit empty. 

Part of the issue at hand is that I often mistake pleasure for happiness. But pleasure and happiness are not the same. Eating a gallon of ice cream is pleasurable, but it sure doesn’t make me happy. Binge-watching “The Office”? Totally pleasurable (and really funny). But it’s never left me happy. I may experience moments of happiness in those pleasurable experiences. But they were short, sometimes unnoticed, and then gone.

It’s not possible to live in sustained happiness. Look at the life of Abd-al-Rahman III. He was Caliph of Córdoba in the 900’s. For his time period, the Caliph had it pretty good: plenty of power, military achievements, cultural pleasures at his disposal, two harems. That’s a lot of available happiness, right? Towards the end of his life, the Caliph decided to recount the days he was truly happy. He counted them up: over the course of his 25,820(ish) days, the Caliph recalled being happy for 14 of them. 

The issue is that humans are not designed to be happy. We’re designed to struggle. We’re designed to survive. Being happy lowers our natural guard and puts us at ease. It discourages our natural instinct to search for more. That, in part, could be why we find ourselves wondering why someone who earns millions of dollars a year still seeks a bigger paycheck. It could be why we can never eat just one potato chip. We’re made to keep searching and striving. It’s our natural urge.

In our pursuit of happiness, we convince ourselves that pain is the antithesis of happiness. We can’t be happy while dealing with pain or struggle. But part of our human experience is pain. Again, we are naturally wired to recognize and struggle with pain. Pretending that pain is abnormal is harmful to the human psyche–we label pain as something that is wrong. And so when we are unable to completely root pain out of our lives and replace it with happiness, then we feel like there is something wrong with us.

But, again, we are not meant to experience prolonged happiness. We will never live a blissful experience all of our days.

Ralph Waldo Emerson offered this: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

I’ve begun to think of life like parenting. The goal of parenting is not to make myself happy. If it was, then I would be manipulative narcissist (and truly unhappy). I don’t think I am a manipulative narcissist (well, at least not all the time) for I do not parent for myself. I parent for the benefit of others. I parent to effectively contribute to the nurturing of my offspring. I wonder if life isn’t similar: we don’t live to be happy; we live to contribute.

I’ve thought about the moments when I’ve achieved some happiness–fleeting as they’ve been. Generally, they did not occur when happiness was the goal. They occurred when I brought something into the world–a life, a useful idea, relief for someone else, and love. 

Those sound like worthy pursuits: life, utility, and love.

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