Our Happiness Deceptions

Time: 12 minutes. 

A metaphor for the modern struggle for meaning.

A long long time ago, we taught ourselves that prosperity and welfare would make us happier. Being normal was not good enough. The new Holy Grail is happiness. However, in our today's modern consumer society it becomes hard to tell what it really means to be happy. In our mechanized and automatic way of living life, it is tough to distinguish our hard-wired thoughts and desires from the source within.

Nowadays you find on every street corner 'how-to' happiness books, articles, videos, TV shows and websites. There are happiness workshops, retreats, cruises, camps and institutes. Universities are adding courses in Happiness Studies. Fast-growing professions are happiness coaches, happiness counseling’s, ‘life-lift’ coaching, ‘joyology’ and even happiness science. Personal happiness is big business and everyone is selling it.

But the fact is that all this buying and doing doesn't make us any happier. The way our social- and economic system works these days is to produce citizens eternally in search of satisfaction. In the end, all the consuming is making us unhappier and is ruining our planet at an unprecedented speed.

When being positive is mandatory in society, that is not necessarily a healthy sign. No one is less able to sustain happiness than someone obsessed with feeling only happiness. A meaningful existence depends on the ability to feel emotions; this includes happiness, fear, worries, sadness, etc.

But when that same society is throwing happiness blockers at you like materialism, competition, stress, rage, loneliness and existential confusion. In addition, when we work 24/7, adrift from family and friends, are spiritually starved, in need of sleep, removed from nature, are physically unfit, enslaved to debt and dumbed down, happiness seems to be the answer. 

I have met people who tried so hard to get some more happiness in life; they almost reached their physical limits in doing so. Too much is no longer enough. People are stretching themselves so far that they have difficulty feeling anything at all.

At its heart, the happiness boom is a metaphor for the modern struggle for meaning.

As I wrote before, personal satisfaction is the most common way of measuring happiness. But satisfaction can actually be a major obstacle to happiness. If happiness is losing its social, intellectual and spiritual anchor, its becomes a need, an addiction. Basically a form of emotional masturbation. Buy more, do more, profit more, get more, more, more, we want more.... And if you want to keep up, you become part of the happiness cult. Now everybody is doing it!

With the happiness cult comes another phenomenon, optimism. In other words, the happiness cult creates a deep stigma on pessimism. Because as being part of any cult, individuals are forced to conform. What I noticed in our society is that we have come to a point where people feel pressure to think and talk in an optimistic way. 

You can feel this pressure wherever you go. Especially on the internet, where the most used weapon of the optimistic orthodoxy is the "Like" button. People even like their own post, assuming the algorithm will give a higher rank to their post. And if that isn't good enough, people will demand to "help or support... X...." by a PM or email. And if that isn't satisfying enough, they will just buy their likes, followers, comments and shares. It’s a multi-million dollar industry.

To get it right, I have nothing against the skill of positive thinking. But optimistic behavior tends to focus on the idea that everything will work out, and so, as a result, the person can be blindsided by situations that occur and not be prepared for them. Positive thinking, on the other hand, acknowledges that problems can occur and that not everything will automatically work out unless the person is prepared to take action. 

The key to possibilities and to look for solutions, starts with positive thinking and without the assumption that everything will automatically work. Of course, I also wrote another vision about positive thinking, but that was more in the ontological context.

So why is there a huge stigma on pessimism? This is because it is routinely assumed the same as, or an aspect of, depression. I find this idea ridiculous. Maybe because I am in a way a devout pessimist on the happiness topic. What the optimist is lacking, I find in pessimism, is realness. Just get real about your situation. Get real about your hunger for satisfaction and get totally real about your need for happiness. 

Because happiness it just a temporary state. As we were kids we all got it right, we were just happy or not. But as adults, we are completely wrong about it. We don't just see it as a temporary state, it’s the ultimate goal. But happiness is fleeting. It is meant to come and go. We are meant to be happy, sad, mad, scared and worried. It’s what makes us painfully human.

If I share my pessimist view on happiness, I often am being accused of being grumpy. Of course, I want everybody to be happy, but if you are drowning in the sea of the happiness business, I may slap you in the face with some realness. Just to flip your ignorance thoughts about happiness.

Because our ignorance of happiness is revealed by the one question on everyone’s lips: ‘Does money make us happy?’

Helena Norberg-Hodge, a well-known anthropologist with decade's worth of experiences in the remote region north of the Indian Himalayan range, describes in her book Ancient Futures, the rapid change that began to occur in the Ladakh traditionally agrarian society when exposed to our current global economic structures and the effect on the happiness of the Ladakhi people.
As she describes the Ladakhis were, considering the harsh environment they were living in, a remarkably joyous and vibrant people. 

The common goods of their culture were a high standard of respect for nature and themselves, a community-mindedness, they were very thankful and experienced a high degree of love for life. Also, they evolved an intensive value of spiritual awareness, empathy and politeness. The foregoing could only exist of the non-existences of any form of violence, bigotry, intolerance and abuse of power. Burned-out people were nowhere to be found.

But when consumer capitalism came knocking on the front door, soon the beautiful balance was gone. It started with cheap, and mainly plastic, products from the other side of the world that destroyed the local market and led to unemployment; mono-cultural production began to eat away at the region’s biodiversity. Second, distant role models became children’s idea of perfection; which led to desirable looks and associated behavior. 

Basically they didn't know how to deal with it and in the end, trouble was all over the place in the small-scale society of the Ladakhis. In a short period of time, Helena saw that the economic, social and environmental problems were all connected to the newly established relationship the Ladakhi people had with the rest of the world. It proved to her that our hook up with economic progression can be devastating.

Will we ever stop thinking that stuff and money will make us happy? So how do we escape the money trap? First, we need each other. We need to feel connected to one another and we can rebuild economic and social systems based on this fundamental recognition.
Second, we have to challenge the predominant paradigm that we are essentially greedy and aggressive, that more is better, larger is inevitable and our success is based on what we acquire and consume.
Third, and this may sound simple or naïve, it is time to ask each other to see the needs for self-reflection and responsibility, and perhaps answer, the hard questions: What do we really need in life to fulfill it?

Do we have the courage to experience the vulnerability inherent in recognizing our need for each other and a healthy, vibrant planet? Are we willing to risk what we will surely lose if we do not?

When we begin to understand the limitations of our material goods, we start acquiring stuff on an as-needed basis, not a this-will-change-my-life basis. This leads to a lot less stuff and, perhaps just as important, we finally stop expecting our stuff to make us happy. By the way, from an environmental point of view, it could really shift the way we treat our planet.

To put it in a bigger perspective, since our existence our mind tells us we need more food, more water, better weapons and a better shelter. People from the Stone Age who thought this way lived longer and has more offspring.
But in the modern world, this manifests as greed, dissatisfaction, craving, wanting, it's never enough. And if all of that wasn't bad enough these stone age thought patterns are intensified by the sheer pace and complexity of modern life.

Our frantic existence, we are rushing form task to task, that never-ending to-do list. And on top of that, we have the urge to fit in the group. Because as cave men if you were alone, you would probably die.

So your mind compares you to others in the group in order to not been thrown out. In our time we do the same, but the problem is we're no longer in a small group. Our groups are enormous today and we carry with us devices that constantly feed us images and stories of people all around the planet.
This constant comparison ramps up our fear of being judged or rejected, not fitting in, or just not being good enough.

So when your mind starts doing this unhelpful stuff, as all minds do, remember it's not defective or abnormal. It's not deliberately trying to make your life difficult. It's simply doing the job it has evolved to do, trying to keep you save. But losing your mind in today's happiness consumer trap is the worst possible way in keeping you save.

So is there another way to work on your (temporary) happiness state, without drowning in the sea of the happiness business? Yes, there is. 

The Ladakhi people knew first hand that sustainability was key to have a happy life. Their way of being with life was formed over years of practice in living life in a harsh environment. There was simply no room for ego. They knew they needed each other for a sustainable happy life. 

May I suggest the idea of Sustainable Happiness. In other words:

  • Live simply,
  • live well and
  • make a difference.

Basically, it's an old wisdom, coming from the source within. If you practice sustainability, you will actually experience happiness. Studies show that happier people go out of their way to take care of their environment. Happy people take care of themselves, others and their planet. By the way, sustainable happiness has nothing to do with money, age or how much stuff we own.

Taking a focus off the excesses of a consumer-driven culture, and instead putting it on mental and emotional wellbeing, is a key to sustainable happiness. Therefore, sustainable happiness is not possible when it comes at a cost to other people, the environment, or future generations.

If you want to practice sustainable happiness it is important to keep in mind that in order to have an experience of real happiness and wellbeing that is enduring and sustainable, it must extend out to other people and the world around you.

Are you willing to give up your ego-based needs? Choose. Because, on a more ontological level, happiness is not a condition, it's a choice. The moment you can let the things be, the moment you choose to be with whatever there is to be with, happiness will occur. You already hold the answer to life's questions, but you are blinded by your mechanized and automatic way of living life.

Put down the mask!

The video below illustrates in a magnificent way our happiness quest. It is the great artwork of Steve Cutts, like the picture on the top. Visit www.stevecutts.com to see more of his work.

The other illustrations are from the hand of John Holcroft. Visit www.johnholcroft.com to see his wide repertoire of cutting-edge satirical messages.

About the Author

Joeban Machiel. Life Enthusiast. Possibilizer. Coach.

With today's stand of more than 1 million visitors and tens of thousands subscribers I want to leave you here with an experience, rather than to merely impart new information. Don’t just take it as value what you read, test it out and see if it works for you. In any case, even the truth, when believed, is made up. You must experience the truth, not believe it.

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