The Grand American Happiness Myth
I think a lot about the
phrase "the pursuit of happiness", emblazoned in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Of course, everyone wants to feel happy, and thus everyone "pursues" it -- as if happiness were something that runs from us. Our culture tells us to believe that happiness is the natural result of achieving certain milestones in life: a home, a family, a car, a successful career, and material wealth. But let's be honest: getting those things takes a lot of work, patience and luck, and not everyone is able to. Among those that do, many may experience a sense of emptiness where they expected to find joy. Why is this? We are conditioned by a culture that perpetuates dangerous myths about what happiness actually is. Let's look at what's wrong with the home ownership + family + career = happiness formula. First, this is a very limited notion of what happiness is and what brings it into our lives, and it hinges entirely on achieving external goals. Second, this couldn't possibly be a formula that works equally well for everybody. People are unique and walk individual paths through their lives (Joseph Campbell wrote, "If the path before you is clear, you're probably on somebody else's".) Third, it reinforces the idea that "happiness" is a state to be achieved and then maintained, preserved for the rest of time. Why is it dangerous to pursue this collective myth of happiness in the contemporary United States? Well, as I mentioned before, not everyone has the privilege, means or luck to own a home, have a successful career, or start a family - much less all three. And those who have bought into the hype often feel bad about themselves if they haven't progressed in life along these familiar lines; they compare themselves to others, blame themselves, and feel like their lives are lacking. They do not permit themselves to be happy, because no one told them that happiness isn't really about all of that. So what is it about? First, let's replace the word "happiness" with the more accurate and encompassing term, "mental well-being". Many spiritual traditions and, more recently, scientific findings have shown that happiness is more of a capacity than a state of being; that it derives more from wanting what you have versus having what you want; and that it is defined less by pleasure than by a solid, congruent, and integrated self (this latter point is summed up well by Mahatma Ghandi: "Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.") Our brains have all sorts of strange ways of recording and classifying experiences, and many of them result in a negative bias. In terms of evolutionary neurobiology, most animals have a dedicated memory network for negative experiences, but not the equivalent for positive ones. This means that happiness is not about achieving a state of mild euphoria and hoping that it lasts; it is rather a practice and a habit of being present with what's happening in the moment, being grateful for the things you might take for granted, and cultivating the things in life that really matter: loving, trusting relationships with both yourself and others. Remember this: When the shoe fits, the foot is forgotten. Happiness is about not forgetting the foot.