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58 Why try to be happy?

Happiness is a journey, not a destination; happiness is to be found along the way not at the end of the road, for then the journey is over and it's too late. The time for happiness is today not tomorrow.

Paul H. Dunn

Searching “happiness” for a suitable blog name taught me that it is an exceptionally popular word. It seems everybody is eager for it, and merchants expect it to sell their products. We should question whether that is good.

To Aristotle, happiness was the purpose of life. Typically, the word means something desirable and worthwhile. Generally, happiness or being happy is perceived as good. The open question is how to recognize, achieve, appreciate, or maintain it. Can it really be a goal?

Over 60 years ago I read an explanation of ghosts. The article explained that on the retina in the human eye, the rods (black and white sensors) at the edges of our visual field are more sensitive to light than the cones (color sensors) near the center. A faint light off to the side is visible. When a person turns to face it directly, it disappears because the cones don’t respond to the low light.

That visual theory provides a good metaphor for happiness. If it exists at all, happiness disappears when you look straight at it. More accurately, going after happiness as an end in itself is vapid, without result. In contrast, energetically going after an appropriate goal creates a condition we call happiness. Perhaps our intensity merely distracts us from the pain of trying to do something, but I believe otherwise. To me happiness accompanies fruitful action, where the fruit has to be something other than merely feeling good. Success is more like indirection or serendipity.

Your happiness might not look like my happiness. I tend to grant people’s beliefs that they are happy. If they say they are, who am I to claim otherwise? We can afford to attach individualized definitions to the word.

I call this a happiness blog, but consistent readers already know that it does not give them a formula path to that destination. Today’s opening quote from Paul Dunn reminds us not to set happiness as a goal to be reached like any other fulfillment or end point. Yet we desire to experience happiness. Given that it is not a product to be purchased, we pursue actions that bring us into a positive state. In Livescience magazine, Clara Moskowitz lists “5 Things That Will Make You Happier.”

That said, searching for the formula that you don’t find in this blog is not happiness. How you search reveals what you think it is, but that is not a cause-and-effect relationship. At least, it does not determine which is cause and which is effect.

In a different Livescience article, Joe Brownstein tells us the best approach to happiness is to stop trying. Study researcher Iris Mauss put it well: “Wanting to be happy can make you less happy.” Expectations matter. Success can be realized by performing up to a high goal, or by accepting as the goal something you can perform. Either success is happy when we do not look straight at happiness but rather let happiness come to us as we are doing. Sometimes, unhappiness is the perfect foil against which we can contrast happiness.

In The Conversation magazine I found a most sober and most realistic article by Rafael Euba. He summarizes “A state of contentment is discouraged by nature because it would lower our guard against possible threats to our survival … happiness, being a mere construct with no neurological basis, cannot be found in the brain tissue.”

I liken the happiness producing process to vigorous exercise: it costs effort and produces euphoria. Seeking the euphoria without the exercise is unsuccessful. Happiness is the mental health that comes from work, as muscle tone comes from exercise.

Aristotle’s declaration appeared in article 3. There I promoted Positive Mental Attitude (PMA) that is independent of circumstances. Article 12 illustrated discovering that happiness moves around with us when we spread it, and article 13 started the create-your-own-world approach to creating happiness. The expectation aspect is fleshed out in article 18 and article 40; expectations need to be well-founded and realistic. Article 29 emphasized the social nature of happiness; we need to be close to people. This is much better explained on TEDx by neuropsychologist Matthew Lieberman: “our need to connect with other people is even more fundamental than our need for food or shelter.” Article 34 combined perceiving and doing, leading up to article 57, studying what we really want. Article 47 emphasized the importance of personal commitment. Internalizing challenges is more rewarding that blindly receiving everything made for you.

That’s quite a collection of evidence, showing the many sides of happiness that we have already covered. We may find more. Perhaps the winning summary is by Brother David Steindl-Rast who teaches on TED that instead of waiting to be grateful until we are happy, we need to be grateful in order to be happy.

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