The Dominion Post published an article recently on how striving to be happy all the time causes anxiety and stress. In it, a psychologist pointed out that it’s not even possible to be happy all the time, which challenges the view in our culture that 24/7 happiness is achievable and we should expect it.
As a belief system, it doesn’t take long to see the holes in this. How many people do you know who would claim to be happy after being told they have a serious illness? Who among us are happy when our pet dies, our relationship breaks up, our business fails, we lose our job, or our loved one dies?
White teeth paradise
Shared on Facebook often and seen in so much of the media, the prevailing ethos is that life can be a permanent, bliss filled, white teeth paradise, and that we are entitled to it. Equally pervasive is the subtle message that if we are not living this saccharine happiness, we have failed, simply don’t understand what’s going on, or are just plain old-fashioned wrong.
Cue personal development seminars, self-help books and videos which point out exactly what we’re doing wrong and how to fix it – i.e. fix you – so that finally we will be able to enjoy the goodies: a perfect relationship (permanent infatuation, adoration with sex on tap), perfect children (future All Blacks and gifted indigo children), the perfect house, the perfect job (travelling the world running a business from a laptop) and perfect dinner parties with a perfect group of friends. It’s a very compelling message, let’s face it, and few of us would pass up the promise of perfect happiness if it really were possible.
In actual fact, our mental health statistics are less than perfect and they’re getting worse – 1 in 10 New Zealanders is on antidepressants. So why is it that the unhappier we become, the more the myth of some impossible, permanent and unreal future happiness becomes more pervasive?
Anthropologists have documented how in many traditional societies, when a severe crisis is affecting them, popular belief systems arise known as ‘cargo cults’ which promise an imagined future where all will be well. To outsiders, the beliefs of these cargo cults are clearly irrational, impossible to achieve and just plain daft. To the people involved in the cults, the beliefs are accepted as facts. Why do people cling to the promise of future happiness, to notions of salvation? Because confronting reality is simply too painful.
Could the current crises in which we are seeing so many stressed, anxious and depressed people be giving rise to modern day, first world cargo cults – the cargo cults of personal development, affirmations, working longer and harder, being more successful, eliminating negative thinking, and striving to be happy all the time?
Are we using these cargo cults as an avoidance strategy, hoping to miss the very real hurt, pain and sadness which is part of parcel of any human life?
Pursue happiness at your peril
Like a donkey chasing a carrot on the end of a stick, no matter how fast we run, we never get there. When we do manage to be happy for a short period, circumstances inevitably change and happiness flies out of the window.
The search for happiness, for future happiness in particular, is itself a cause of stress and anxiety, and unhappiness too of course, especially as it is often held up in our culture as a possibility, even a prize to be ‘won’.
Resistance is futile
As with all belief systems that act as some form of immunisation from the realities of human life, people can be very protective of them. It can be ever so painful to lose our illusions, to see and feel the reality of our life. Look around the world and you’ll see plenty of examples – both today and in history – of people fighting to the death for their belief systems.
Getting back down to earth, people will argue till the sacred cows come home to protect their unquestioned beliefs, in the likes of The Secret.
Resistance is futile. Even the most fought for and protected belief system cannot resist what is true and inevitable: regardless of our beliefs life has its way with us. Death doesn’t care if we chant 20 affirmations every day. Whatever we do, we are going to die.
As much as we try to numb ourselves, make ourselves immune from feeling difficult emotions such as anger, sadness and shame by practicing positive thinking, challenging and difficult emotions are going to arise. Even if we stress, struggle and strive to play all our cards right all the time, we have no control over the other hands in the game.
We change. People change and circumstances change. Priorities change. What was important to me once is important no longer. Friends become acquaintances and even strangers. New relationships emerge. Intimate relationships are formed and they fall apart. Physical and emotional pain occurs, even if we tell no-one about it.
As much as we try to win at life, life always wins. Every time. So where does that leave us? It leaves us in the only place we truly exist, right here and right now. The present moment. For most of us, a lot of the time, this can be the last place we actually want to be. And often for good reason: it can be uncomfortable, it means feeling pain, feeling loss, feeling rejection, feeling sadness, being anxious, depressed or angry.
This perceived gap between our actual state of being and how we think we should be can be the cause of tremendous suffering. But for those of us willing to start to front up and feel this deep, gritty unpleasantness, we discover to our surprise that it’s far more inviting than the dehumanising, unreal, sleepy and anxiety inducing pursuit of fake happiness.
So where does mindfulness come into this?
A regular mindfulness practice focuses our attention on the here and now. We let go of our need to be satisfied or fulfilled in the future, to be happy when we get the right job, partner, mental state, body shape, income, education and so on.
It’s a paradox: by being present, even if it is difficult, uncomfortable or hurting, we discover a deep, subtle and more profound contentment. This is the contentment of being undefended, unvarnished and vulnerable, the contentment of knowing and accepting that we are less than perfect.
It is an acknowledgement that ultimately we are not in control, no matter how hard we try and how much we wish things would be otherwise, we will feel sad, angry, rejected and hurt from time to time. That no matter what, we will be subject to sickness, old age and death.
This is the contentment of not seeking some mad escape from the reality of the life we are living, the contentment that comes from not fighting how things actually are. The joy of being a fully feeling human. Enjoy!