By this point it should be evident that I could fill an entire book of essays simply by taking common words such as “freedom” and “truth” and deconstructing them, using example after example to demonstrate how language can serve as a force field that prevents people from fully exploring the more complicated reality that often lies behind the assumptions they make about themselves and the world.
It’s a compelling notion, I suppose — a book of essays with such a strong thematic linkage to each other — and yet a book like that is not really something I want to write, and it’s probably not something anyone, except maybe a bored English major or a sympathetic blood-relative of mine, would want to read.
Even so, because of the prominence a certain concept has attained in our society, and on account of the pernicious way it can haunt and worry us as we move about our days, I think it’s necessary to critically question the word “happiness” and its associates.
“Are you happy?”
It’s such a common, simple question to both ask and be asked. But its simplicity is deceptive.
The problem is that while the word can be used situationally — to delineate, for example, a “happy memory” or a “happy coincidence” — it also can be used in a more holistic manner to attempt to summarize a person’s overall mental and emotional well being.
“Are you happy?”
My mother asks me some version of this question on a regular basis, and I’m always confused about how to answer.
I want to say “mostly” or “usually,” because that seems to be the most accurate way of responding, but I also don’t want her to worry about me and try to intrude into my life.
“Yes, I’m happy,” I say.
I feel that I have told some kind of untruth, but this makes her entire line of questioning evaporate.
This is because my mother has fallen into the mental trap of thinking about happiness as a binary — that either you’re happy or you’re not. The emphasis here is placed on the holistic meaning of happy, as if somehow a person is able to assign happiness values to all the aspects of their life and perform a calculation that is able to tell them whether they are happy or not.
I’m not sure how the notion that pure, unadulterated and constant happiness as an achievable state gets stuck into people’s heads, but certainly our popular culture with its superficial messages and freewheeling celebrities can encourage us to think of happiness just this way.
There’s a capitalist power to the idea: if you are able to buy this one item or take this one drug or click this one link, our marketing and advertising seems to say, you can finally become happy.
If you can just drink this one product every day or make a million dollars or be a professional athlete, the underlying currents of our consumer culture seem to suggest, you, too, can be happy and complete.
This is, of course, far from accurate or realistic.
And yet even if we acknowledge that all Americans are potential victims of a massive cultural confidence game, there are still historical models of human beings who were reportedly able to be happy all the time. What about them?
Mildred Norman, better known as Peace Pilgrim, who crossed the United States six times on foot during 28 years of wandering and who was killed tragically (ironically?) while being driven in a car to a speaking event in 1981, suggested to her many admirers and inquisitors that she had achieved a perpetual state of peace and happiness.
Her model, no doubt, was the Buddha, who is said to have achieved Nirvana after many years of meditation.
Frequently depicted as a serenely smiling figure in hundreds of thousands of statues across Asia and around the world, the Buddha’s key insight was that desire is the root of all suffering.
We suffer because we want things, the Buddha said — the basics of food, shelter, and water if we are in need of these things — but also money and material possessions as well as intangibles such as love and respect.
If one can learn to eliminate desire and control one’s thoughts, the Buddha argued, one can experience a near-constant state of peace and happiness.
As evidenced by the substantial popularity of Buddhism today — it’s the fourth largest faith in the world, with nearly 8 percent of the world’s population reporting themselves to be Buddhists — the call to find happiness through the elimination of desire clearly has some resonance.
And although the ultimate achievement of Nirvana is so subjective that it’s not possible to make a list of those Buddhists who have successfully done it, enough practitioners have evidentially benefitted from the eightfold path (as the Buddha’s route to Nirvana is called) that they have served as examples for others to follow.
But let’s say you do not have a desire to become a wandering monk like Peace Pilgrim or seek Nirvana along the eightfold path.
Are you destined to suffer?
Unfortunately, the answer is yes.
Suffering is part of being human.
Happiness, like all emotions, is transient — it comes and goes depending on your situation and your mood, even for millionaires and celebrities and other people who seem to “have it all.”
So begin by accepting that you are not going to be happy all the time in your life.
Do what you can to rid yourself of the unhelpful notion that “happiness” is a steady, definable state that you will somehow able to achieve, that it’s possible to “be happy.”
Then begin to take note of, and treasure, the moments that you do feel happiness. Consider how those moments arrived and then do what you can to create more of them.
What situations bring you peace of mind? What situations bring you joy? What is the role of other people in these situations? And perhaps just as importantly, what wasn’t happening during these times that allowed you to relax and feel good?
By constantly reflecting on and nurturing the moments that bring you greater happiness and doing away with the unrealistic expectation that happiness is a constant, achievable state, you probably won’t find Nirvana — but you’ll find yourself more at home in the world and your own skin.