What do Taylor Swift, that guy whose best attempt at romance was to send you a picture of his junk, and bell hooks have in common? Well, if we managed to look past the catchy lyrics, the nauseating brocabulary, and the penetrating eloquence, we’d see that they all just want to be happy. But what is happiness, anyway? I know it seems like a question for philosophers, but as a therapist I’ve learned that how we define happiness actually has serious implications for our mental health.
Most of us grow up believing that happiness is the emotion we feel when things go our way. Good grades, good relationships, good job, good health, that sort of thing. Most basically, it’s about the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain. This concept of happiness is so normal that it seems weird even to think about it.
The bad news is, this happiness has a serious dark side. For starters, it’s actually impossible to control things so that we only feel pleasure and never feel pain. Built right into gain, praise, pleasure and life are loss, blame, pain and death; trying to cling to one side of the coin while rejecting the other is like, well, trying to cling to one side of a coin and reject the other.
The other problem is that when we try to cling to pleasure and avoid pain, we tend to act in less than awesome ways. Addiction, abuse, neglect, deceit, manipulation, people-pleasing and even more macro level issues like economic exploitation and environmental destruction can all be traced back to a fundamental attachment to pleasure and avoidance of pain.
The worst part? Even when we do manage to grab onto this happiness, it tends to be pretty superficial, and it disappears all too quickly.
In summary, the conventional brand of happiness kind of sucks. The good news is, there’s a competing vision of happiness: not the presence of pleasure and absence of pain, but a life lived in accordance with one’s values. Our values are what we cherish most deeply – depending on the person, they could be stuff like compassion, adventure, family, love or humour – and, if we want to get really philosophical about it, they’re an expression of our most authentic selves.
The happiness of authenticity has nothing to do with feeling good and not feeling bad. This type of happiness recognizes that humans just sometimes feel shitty and sometimes feel great, sometimes win and sometimes lose. With this happiness, we shift our focus from that fact – which we can’t control – to what we can control, that is, whether or not to act in alignment with our values regardless of the circumstances. The added bonus is that if we’re not chasing pleasure and avoiding pain, we’re much less likely to be dicks to each other and ourselves.
The best part? Acting in alignment with our values leads to a deep, lasting contentment that makes pleasure and pain seem feeble in comparison. It also happens to be the foundation of unshakable self-esteem. But don’t take my word for it; experiment with chasing this second type of happiness rather than the first, and see how quickly it changes everything.
John is a therapist who practices in Waterloo.