The Happiness Burden

Mezzegra_alleyway_1We love the pursuit of happiness, we love seeing it disappear around the corner, down an ally. That chase is everything.

But much like a dog chasing a car, if we catch happiness, we don’t know what to do with it.

Happiness is work. If we admit to being happy, we have a responsibility to stay happy. Maybe even admit we deserve to be happy. And then, even harder, make others happy. It’s too much work to sustain happiness.

So we don’t want to be happy. We just want to chase it. For all the competitiveness of our culture, we never claim to be happier than someone else. Or know more about how to be happy. Or how to stay happy. Nope. We’ll deny it. As if it were bad luck.

So maybe it’s the pursuit we love. The chase. The just-out-of-reach-ness of happiness. It’s the best when it’s the one that got away. Owning happiness is a burden. Chasing it is an adventure.

–Quinn McDonald loves the pursuit of happiness.

Image: Ally in Mezzegra, photo by Aconcagua, Wiki Commons GFDL, Cc-by-sa-3.0

20 thoughts on “The Happiness Burden

  1. Do we seek happiness or do we just pursue a lack of misery? For most of us most of the time we are neither ecstatic or despairing. Quinn, your comment of being happy being work is interesting and true. Pete – the idea of “Fat dumb and Happy” implies people who are too stupid to know what they don’t have and who are therefore not striving for “bigger, better, more expensive…” Maybe long term happiness is contentment with what we have and where we are in life. It comes to many people as they get older and realize that all the striving and struggling and pursuing are not the answer to the questions in their souls.

    • I think you’re right; when I’ve heard the FDH phrase it’s always been a term of derision, used by people who believe striving for more is the (only) smart and correct approach to living. It doesn’t really hold up if you think about it, since the reason for all the striving might be happiness, but then achieving it would be a reason not to strive any more, which would be anathema.

  2. Oh, as to Pete’s comment about what happens outside a person is more important…I think it is our birthright to be happy, we just don’t claim it often. How you give to the world is as important as the gift.

  3. Abraham Lincoln said, “A man is about as happy as he makes up his mind to be.” Delighted, pleased or glad about something, characterized by pleasure, contentment or joy…I would say I have a happy life and am happy most of the time, and don’t have to wait til it’s over to figure that out. I think some of the people who have hard lives are able to be happy, happier maybe than some of the people who have easy lives but don’t appreciate being alive. I don’t feel like I’m “pursuing or chasing” happiness. Like comments below, it comes “on little cat feet” or in like sudden summer rain.

  4. Happiness is a state of mind. I guess it can be pursued; many people seem to think so, even when they confuse it with pleasure or satisfaction or gratification. As a state of mind it’s to some extent within a person’s control. Not all the time, and not easily, but it’s an internal mental state and you own those (all else being equal).

    Happiness is not a state of mind. It can be pursued but it can’t be caught, not in any way you’d be able to perceive. It’s a measure of a life, and probably not available to the person living the life. It’s an external, maybe objective summing-up, and it’s to some extent within a person’s control. It’s not easy but you can strive to live a life that in the end will be considered happy.

    The question about happiness in the first sense is “what good is it?” It’s not always “approved of”; there’s an old disparaging phrase “fat, dumb, and happy” that implies only sub-par underachievers have it. If you’re happy that means you’re not striving for more or better. Which, by implication, you ought to be. So you reject happiness in order to work hard and strive, and in the long tradition of neuroplasticity, discover you’ve achieved the mental state anyway. Because mental states are under your control.

    I can’t manage to accept that my mental states have any relevance at all. It’s what happens in the rest of the universe (the rest of it outside one’s skull) that’s more significant. It’s very nice, and all that, if I experience a particular positive feeling about something, even something I’ve done, but I don’t think it matters. Having an effect outside my own head, in a realm where I’m NOT in control — that matters more. That’s why happiness in the second sense seems more real to me.

  5. so many people chase happiness…”oh poor me i can’t find happiness” when they just need to enjoy what they have because what they have is much more than many happy people have. happy people have just learned to appreciate it.

  6. Thanks Quinn, this post made me think.
    I don’t know if happiness is something you should chase too much. That way it just keeps running away from you, like all things that are chased. When you just go about your business, doing the things that speak to your heart it will surprise you and come visit you all on its own. I think happiness is an awareness more than anything, not some delirious elated feeling, but contentment and peace of mind even in bad times. At least that’s what it is for me (and no, by no way have I reached that point where I have great peace of mind all the time, haha, I wish). Chasing and working my ass off for happiness that disappears around the corner, just seems exhausting to me.

    I do agree that people rarely speak of how happy they are, but always try to trump each other with their miseries. Funny thing that. As if it’s almost shaming to be content with what you have and enjoy what is.

    Maybe one should treat happiness the way I often treat shy or new to me cats. I just let them go about their business, feed them and talk to them nicely, but I don’t force them to be petted or pick them up or try to coax them to sit on my lap. That will just scare them away. Nine out of ten times eventually the cat will at some point come to you and if you’re very lucky one unexpected night it will suddenly jump on your lap. (It took my current not even shy cat a year to figure out my lap was the place to be in our house, haha). I guess what I’m trying to say is, let happiness come to you when it’s ready and don’t force it. Hope this makes sense.

    • It makes excellent sense, all the way around. I don’t think happiness is something you can catch and put on display, either. I think it’s a feeling, emotion, and state of becoming. I like the cat metaphor. It’s very apt.

  7. Just today there was in the morning paper a story about a woman who got tired of waiting for happiness to begin and decided to go for a hike while she waited for it. She went to Spain and walked the 750 kilometers of the Way of St. James to Santiago de Compostella. To her surprise, she became happy while walking. It just happened. She wasn’t looking for happiness, she really thought that she was just taking a walk (a rather long walk) before resuming her lifelong pursuit of happiness. Now she is starting a business of guided walks and hikes following old pilgrim routes (it’s not about religion or religiousness though, she says) for people who want to realise their happiness. Interesting idea that by letting go of her dream of happiness, even only for awhile, she found it.

    • That’s a great story. I believe in happiness through walking. I’ve walked roughly the distance of the circumference of the earth in the last 30 years, and I’m most likely to be happy while walking.

      • Me too, in the bush or on the beach, with or without company but company trumps being alone. And you’re right about aging and happiness Quinn . . . it seems to surround me these days . . . I’m not looking but it keeps finding me and tapping me on the shoulder.

        I heard the results of some interesting research the other day. The joy of doing something altruistic adds more benefit to the immune system than the joy of something superficial like shopping . . . it didn’t surprise me at all. What is it? If you want to be happy do something nice for others.

        • I think that at a certain age, we are sure of who we are, and we want to help others along. Maybe we remember the struggle of the journey, maybe it’s just the joy of lending a hand. But you are right. Helping others always frees us.

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