Happiness may not be the best goal to pursue

Attempts by governments to foster happiness in the population seem to have been hitting resistance. This is not only because of the well-known tendency of the population to tire of particular regimes over time and look for a change but also that the very happiness agenda itself has been controversial. It’s been pointed out that an over-strong emphasis on happiness as a desirable quality can actually have a dispiriting effect on those for whom being happy is something they are really struggling with. Even the supposed champion par excellence of happiness, Dr Seligman, has in his latest book Flourish moved away from saying that happiness is crucial to wellbeing and instead classed it as one facet of “Positive Emotion”, itself one of five determinants of well being.

If for example you are one who is suffering from depression, it is possible that too much of an emphasis on being happy could tip you further into depression. You might for example feel you’re failing, that it’s beyond you. People who are depressed are even likely to avoid being around situations where you are supposed to be happy. It can just “miss it” for them. If someone comes up to them and says “Cheer up!” they might just be met with an expletive.

This can seem to fly in the face of so much cultural pressure to “be positive”, to at all costs keep a smile on your face. I’m always struck how in business today, when people talk together they often have a fixed smile on their face. I remember at one training course it was, with a Transatlantic reference, called a “PanAm smile”, a big, cheesy grin but no crows feet creases at the edge of the eyes. Look into the eyes and they aren’t smiling. The eyes after all are where truth lies.

Happiness can become a polarity, at the other end of which is sadness. Those who are bipolar will know this painfully well: you can flip from one state to the other very fast. Rather, I would suggest a re-framing of perspective. Happiness as a state can be a misleading goal for those on a path of personal growth.

In meditation, for example, before you settle into a meditative state you might first need to negotiate the Scylla and Charybdis pitfalls of the mind. All can play itself out when you confront your mind’s tendencies here. You might go off into some blank state and then you might be caught up in whatever is plaguing your mind that day. If you’re feeling down, you can get that in meditation. The art is how to become aware or mindful, to return your awareness to your breath (and perhaps to a mantra) and let go of what the mind is focused on. Instead you become the watcher of the mind, the witness.

In the aware state you might simply be aware. You might be very present. You might just be blank. You might feel at peace, calm, steady, balanced, centered. Then you might feel very contented. You might even feel love, or bliss, ananda. And then you might not. But you would seek not to judge it, not to have expectation, not to set yourself up in comparison, but be unattached. Once you set yourself up in comparison, you are setting up a subject/object separation and are no longer at One.

So, from this perspective, as Seligman says, happiness is just one state. But it’s not the only one, or necessarily a pre-condition for well being. So, perhaps it’s best not to get hung up on the search for happiness per se! Like so much of life, it is riven with paradox.