The pursuit of happiness is a complicated idea.
It’s interesting that the term is phrased “the pursuit of happiness,” rather than “the attainment of happiness.”
This is typical of human nature: happiness is not something we ever truly have. Much of what we characterize as happiness arises through struggle.
Happiness cannot truly exist independently.
If we somehow discovered “perfect happiness,” I’m not sure we would have the faintest notion of what to do with it. We would probably get bored, honestly.
If it wasn’t for pain, heartache, and strife—would we even appreciate happiness?
Our forefathers were not stupid. The pursuit of happiness was written into our constitution because that is the most we could ever ask for. Happiness is unveiled in its pursuit.
This is immensely important to understand, because if we put our faith in some illusory notion of perfect happiness, we will be endlessly disappointed with our meager little lives.
The beauty of life can never be seen so as long as we remain bound by the ideal of happiness. Nothing will truly satisfy us. We will always be waiting for the next thing—whether it be the next relationship, the next job, the next meal, or what have you—the present moment will never be fully enjoyed.
Viktor Frankl, psychologist and holocaust survivor, summed this notion up quite nicely in his renowned book, Man’s Search For Meaning.
“Thus, it can be seen that mental health is based on a certain degree of tension—the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such a tension is inherent to the human being and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being.”
I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that man needs equilibrium (homeostasis—a tensionless state) in the first place. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state, but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal—a freely chosen task.
If architects want to strengthen a decrepit arch, they increase the load which is laid upon it. This way, the parts are joined more firmly together. If therapists wish to foster their patients mental health, they should not be afraid to create a sound amount of tension through a reorientation toward the meaning of one’s life.”
Don’t lighten the load. Increase the existential burden that we put upon ourselves, it actually generates a deep sense of meaning. It is this abiding sense of purpose that creates the most profound and lasting quality of happiness. The more wholehearted and vigorous our pursuit is, then the happier we feel.
Happiness is overrated. It is meaning we most deeply desire, and we uncover meaning by taking responsibility for ourselves and those around us.
When we take on this kind of responsibility, we open the door to a much deeper quality of fulfillment—one that is not limited to mere pleasure and gratification. The deepest drive in human beings is that of the “will to meaning” (as Frankl understood) rather than the will to power or impulse toward pleasure.
The more meaningful our lives feel, the more joy we experience.
Human beings are highly dualistic creatures. We never abide purely at one end of the spectrum or the other. (Good/bad, happy/unhappy, like/dislike, and so on.) We always fluctuate between opposites, so we ought not just pursue one extreme and avoid the other. This leaves us confused and distraught because the expectation of having exactly what we want is entirely unrealistic and turns us into whiny children.
Meaning is found beyond the flux of the good and the bad. It is transcendent of duality.
To live a meaningful life is to pursue the good while accepting the bad. I know this seems like a contradiction, but it really is not. There are certain things we don’t have control over, and it is important that we accept these things while continuing to strive for better. This is what it means to live in dao, to walk the fine line between the yin and the yang.
Don’t expect happiness.
Let’s pursue a sense of meaning in our lives, and perhaps a deeper and more experiential quality of happiness will follow.
Author: Samuel Kronen
Image: Tarrek Rafoul
Editor: Danielle Beutell
Copy Editor: Catherine Monkman
Social Editor: Catherine Monkman