The Happiness Myth

It may seem like I’m rambling on here, but I promise you that this is all about one of my life what ifs. Oh, and I might offend some people.  Too bad.  If you read all the way through, you’ll realize it’s probably a good thing to be offended from time to time.

Also, I wrestled with WordPress for over an hour trying to get pictures in, but they kept getting booted out.  So I’m sorry but there’s just text for now.

I’ve learned a lot these past few months as I’ve been researching options for moving abroad.  Bloggers in particular have been very helpful.  They’ve been honest about their own fears and failures, pointed me toward great resources, inspired me to try new things, and made me smile with some of their fun life stories.  There’s also an awesome blogger community out there that gives me fuzzies.

I think to be  good blogger (or, at least, a popular one) you have to do more than just write about life.  You need to live a life that others want to live.  And that’s what a lot of these travel / adventure bloggers are doing, and that’s why people eagerly flock to their sites.  People like to be vicarious.

But there’s another hook that is often employed, one that I’ve seen on many many many sites.  It’s a line that goes something like this:

“See?  Living a life like mine is so easy.  And you can do it, too!  Quit your job, sell your possessions, buy a plane ticket, and take a chance because you deserve to be happy.”

And while I don’t disagree that happiness is a good thing, nor is taking some risks, and I do greatly admire these folks for trying things outside of the box, I was struck by a peculiar thought:

“Says who?”

You deserve to be happy.  Deserve.  As though I’ve earned it.

No, I haven’t.  I don’t deserve anything.

I mean, a lot of people that know or knew me would call me a goody-goody.  Nearly straight As, didn’t drink underage (barely drink overage), no drugs, never slept around, never racked up irresponsible debt, volunteered at my church and homeless shelters, followed the rules, didn’t swear…  Okay, that last one’s been getting broken a bit more in recent years.  There were a number of kids in my high school class who did not like me because I was that obnoxious, brown-nosing kid who was always polishing her halo.

Those who truly know me know that I’m not a nice person a lot of times.  I’m proud, boastful, judgmental, cutting, ridiculously self-absorbed, and sometimes just plain mean.  I would even say that there have been times that my excessive brown-nosing and rule-following resulted in me not showing compassion towards those that really needed it.  In fact, my goody-goody nature has contributed to my pride and judgmental-ness.

So, really, what have I done to deserve happiness?  Stack up my pros and my cons and I guarantee you the cons will outweigh.

This happiness thing has pervaded our culture and, in my mind, is responsible for a lot of the downfalls of our society.  It seems like everywhere I turn I’m told to do what makes me happy.  And surveys of parents today say their highest goal for their children is that the kids are happy.

When did personal happiness become our primary concern?

What if life is not about happiness?

Let’s take a moment here folks and think just for a minute what would happen if we all pursued primarily happiness.

  • Imagine if everyone did quit their job to travel abroad.  Worldwide chaos!
  • You know those folks that Mike Rowe interviews on Dirty Jobs that say, “I love my job”?  For each of those there’s a few dozen others that honestly do not like cleaning up roadkill, collecting garbage, or sorting soiled fabric at a diaper service.  They do it because they have kids that need shoes.
  • Forget just those stereotypically undesirable jobs; how many people would pack up and quit working altogether at “regular” jobs because they’re not happy?
  • I can tell you that if my happiness was governing my every action I would not be eating things like green beans and broccoli.  No sirree, it’d be pizza and cheesecake for me every day!
  • I also wouldn’t be running.
  • If I left my Sunday school munchkins to their own happiness pursuits they’d be punching each other, stealing toys, and creating mass chaos – not to mention unsafe things like probably upside-down chicken fighting on the jungle gym.
  • We’d have sky-high divorce rates as people abandoned vows and families because they’re just not happy anymore.  Oh wait, we’re already there…

I’m not a parent, but I think most good parents will tell you that they do stuff all the time that’s not based on their children’s happiness but rather their best interest.  They don’t let them play in busy streets, they force them to eat veggies before that ice cream, they make them do homework instead of playing video games.

These things make the kids unhappy, certainly, but also help ensure that they survive to adulthood – and hopefully not an adulthood where they’re still living in mom and dad’s basement.

It’s not just parenting, though.  Society is quite concerned about my happiness.  Haven’t you heard that every child gets a trophy in sports now? My friend who’s a high school science teacher is not allowed to give more than X number of quizzes/tests during the year, because apparently examinations make students anxious and nervous.  (So he gives “knowledge surveys” instead because he’s clever and subversive like that.)

Emotion vs. State of Being

Here’s the thing, folks.  I don’t know if you know this, but happiness is an emotion.

I know, I’m brilliant, right?  I told you I got nearly straight As.

And here’s the thing about emotions: they’re temporary.

I’m angry now about that idiot who cut me off in traffic?  It’ll fade when I hear on the news that my team won the big game.  And that elation will fade when I hear a noise outside that I’m certain is something otherworldly.  And that fear will fade when my mom calls to tell me that the dog died.

Some emotions take longer to fade than others, but life is a series of emotions – one being replaced by another all day every day.

By pursuing happiness as opposed to, say, well-being we’re pursuing something temporary.  And that’s just stupid.

Happiness today does not lead to greater self-esteem tomorrow.  I work with young adults on a daily basis and can tell you that everyone getting a trophy in soccer means that when someone did do extraordinary work s/he was not recognized.  So why bother working hard?  And by protecting kids from feeling anxiety about a quiz or solving a problem, they now don’t know how to handle hurdles they encounter in higher education or the workplace.*  You think maybe there could be a small connecting factor between the large number of teen suicides and the lack of coping skills?

*I had a girl at my desk this week who called her mom on her cell, then handed it across the desk saying, “My mom wants to talk to you.”  Is this a picture of self-esteem?  That mom needs to be brought in to solve a scheduling problem?

Many youth today have anything but self-esteem.  Another friend of mine who’s a college teacher says he has a student who gets every answer right, but she’s always unsure of herself and is looking for affirmation.  We’ve insulated youth so long in order to protect their happiness today that we’ve hamstringed them by not giving them the confidence to go out, make mistakes, and learn even in easy situations; how will anyone ever cure cancer if they don’t learn how to take those risks (including that of potential failure) in the first place?

If you have ever had the privilege to meet a person with real joy and peace, you know that that person has not had a perfect life.  Rather, they’ve encountered hardships and made it through before.  So they know they can make it through the next storm, too.

So I’ve got a question…

If it’s not about happiness, what is life about?  I have my own ideas, but I would be very interested to hear yours.  That’s why blogs have comment sections.  🙂

Don’t get me wrong, I like happiness. I want to be happy.  I do not like to be grumpy – nor do the people around me much like me that way.  But if I spend my life in pursuit of happiness, I don’t think it’s the best thing for anyone.  I think a better thing is learning how to be content in any and every situation, well-fed or hungry, living in plenty or want.

* * * * *

What does this post have to do with international travel?  Nothing, directly.  But as I’ve been looking at options and other avenues I can explore I’ve found myself stepping back and taking a broader, objective look at life.

And this subject of happiness just grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.  In fact, it’s making me think about my ultimate purpose in traveling abroad and how I can be a part of a bigger picture.

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One Response to The Happiness Myth

  1. Aimee says:

    Very interesting observation. I consider myself to be someone who has an interesting life. I’m doing pretty good, and I went through an awful lot of very NOT GOOD. Some time ago, probably in my late teens/early 20’s I decided that there was no way I was going to be able to do the things that “make me happy” because it was totally impractical. So, whenever I feel the need to make a decision about something, large or small, I try to “Do what is Best”. Best often is what makes me happy, which is nice, but even better it usually turns out to be what makes me happy in the long-term. I of course fail all the time (clothes and goodies for others are my downfall), but I try very hard to do what is best in all my actions. Not easy. I do highly recommend it, though. If I do get asked for advice from friends/family, I nearly always give them some form of, “try to do what you think is best and right given the information you have now. That way, even if it goes a bit wrong, you will have confidence that you made the best choice you could at the time.” That is what I call Happiness.

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