What do you want in life? Maybe you want to spend more time with your family. Or you wish to have a more rewarding and stable job. Or maybe you want to find your sweetheart. Or improve your health. But why do you want all this?
Your answer is likely to be: to be happy.
At this point it's worth asking yourself: Are you sure these things will make you happy?
An experiment conducted at the Imperial College of Science revealed that we are not very accurate in predicting the intensity of our emotions and feelings. We tend to think that positive events will make us very happy, but then we find that this is not the case. This leads us to an unsuccessful pursuit of happiness that ends in dissatisfaction, frustration and disappointment.
Seeking happiness in the wrong direction
Our culture is so obsessed with the pursuit of happiness that we take it for granted that the desire to be happy needs no justification. We think happiness is good because being happy is good. However, the philosopher Nat Rutherford wonders whether it is valid and sensible to build our life on the basis of this circular reasoning.
“In the modern world, happiness is the closest we have to a summum bonum, the highest good from which all other goods spring. Following this logic, unhappiness becomes a summum malum, the greatest evil to be avoided, ”he wrote.
A study developed at the University of California showed that the obsessive pursuit of happiness is associated with an increased risk of depression. Psychologists at the University of Denver also found that people who valued happiness most reported being less happy under stress than those who didn't value happiness.
Therefore, probably one of our biggest mistakes in the pursuit of happiness is to worry too much about being happy, to the point of judging all aspects of our life by their contribution to that idealized emotional state.
We are more interested in how to seek happiness than in trying to understand what it really is and to what extent it is a desirable goal in life. We develop a limited and too pragmatic conception of happiness focused more on the search for positive emotions than on meaning.
How much are we willing to sacrifice to be happy?
In 1989 the philosopher Robert Nozick suggested a dilemma: imagine for a moment that there is a machine that can give us anything we want. It can satisfy all our wishes. We can be great writers, become renowned inventors or successful entrepreneurs. We can live the life we have always dreamed of, the one that would make us happy. However, that machine is actually a simulator, so we should live immersed in a tub with electrodes attached to our brains.
Would you connect to that machine to be happy?
Psychologists from the universities of Groningen and La Soborna presented the same scenario to 249 people. The vast majority of participants decided not to connect to the machine, rejecting the fictitious happiness it offered them. The possibility of taking a pill that would generate pleasurable experiences for them throughout their life only convinced half of the people. Instead, nearly everyone chose to take a pill that would improve their physical, cognitive, and social functioning.
This experiment reveals that although we are immersed in the pursuit of happiness, we are not really willing to sacrifice everything to have pleasant experiences. Our deepest "selves" actually aspire to a meaningful life that goes far beyond happiness and is related to effort.
Therefore, although happiness is desirable, it is not the only desirable thing. Understanding it will help us free ourselves from the "tyranny of happiness", so as to stop obsessively seeking it, losing it along the way.
Accepting suffering, an indispensable condition for finding happiness
For Epicurus, happiness is about seeking pleasure and avoiding pain and suffering. According to this Greek philosopher, the prolonged absence of pain gives us peace of mind or ataraxia, a state in which we are "at peace with ourselves". But a fulfilling and fulfilling life goes beyond the balance between pleasure and pain.
Indeed, Friedrich Nietzsche reminds us that we are willing to suffer or face unpleasant situations if we are sure of getting a reward. “Man does not repudiate suffering as such, on the contrary he seeks it, as long as a meaning is shown to it”, he wrote.
The vision of happiness that basically depends on our moods, usually fleeting and influenced by circumstances, inevitably condemns us to live in a state of dissatisfaction by pursuing an unattainable chimera. Life, even that of the most fortunate people, does not escape pain, loss, disappointment, illness, sadness and loneliness. Pain is an inevitable consequence of being alive.
When suffering has a purpose or we find meaning in it, it can be more bearable. Happiness and suffering, in fact, are not mutually exclusive, but are rather two sides of the same coin. One does not exist without the other, so running away from suffering will not bring us closer to happiness.
How to seek happiness through eudaemony?
Instead of happiness, Aristotle preferred to speak of eudaemony. Although many translate this word as "happiness", it is actually a concept more like meaningful balance.
The Aristotelian vision of eudaemony is complex because it includes not only what gives us pleasure, but also individual satisfaction, excellence, commitment and moral virtue. Unlike happiness, eudaemony is not the result of our mental states - which are often fickle - but rather of leading a meaningful life.
If we apply this idea to the pursuit of happiness, we can understand that the key is not to ask ourselves what makes us happy, but rather what satisfies us, allows us to grow and is important to us. The answers to these questions usually do not lead to epicurean and momentary pleasures but project themselves into the future, giving meaning to our life.
"No life worth living should meet the standard set by the epicurean or utilitarian visions of happiness, for which its modern followers are doomed to be deluded by the imperfections of human life," wrote Rutherford.
Therefore, thriving as a person through meaningful actions could be the secret to happiness, as that is what would come of it. Aiming for eudaemony will allow us to embrace our imperfections and thrive despite them by finding what is important to us. Happiness will come as a result. So maybe we shouldn't ask ourselves what makes us happy, but what is meaningful to us.