Happiness

Charlie Brown: “Why was I put on this earth?”

Linus: “To make others happy.”

Charlie Brown: “Why were others put on this earth?”

My life has no purpose, no direction, no aim, no meaning, and yet I'm happy. I can’t figure it out. What am I doing right? — Charles M Schulz, creator of ‘Peanuts’

If ignorance is bliss, why aren’t there more happy people?

It’s pretty hard to tell what does bring happiness; poverty and wealth have both failed. — Kim Hubbard


True happiness is a state of mind to which all aspire, but which is rarely and only intermittently encountered. If you were to compare photographs of a New York sidewalk and a back street in New Delhi, you’d find a similar number of happy faces, despite the extravagant wealth of the first city and the other’s grinding poverty. From this, we can assume that causes of happiness are largely determined by personal attitudes and circumstances, and not by our material possessions.

The Problem

Unhappiness is the consequence of not getting what we want or not having control over our current situation. To a greater or lesser extent, we human beings are all ‘control freaks’: we feel insecure when we’re not in a position of power. Developing children test out their abilities to control others at the earliest age: should their parents refuse to give them what they demand, they respond by means of a burst of tears or a temper tantrum. Although most eventually accept what they’re told, there are those who remain for the rest of their lives in a vicious circle of rebellion and misery.

Despite their supposed greater sophistication, most adults aren’t much different to children. However, unhappiness in adults has far more serious consequences, commonly involving the use of drugs and drink, gambling, crime, abuse and domestic violence.

Most people automatically try to alleviate their unhappiness, using one or more of the following methods:-

Escapism

Children aren’t happy without something to ignore,

And that’s what parents were created for.

  — Ogden Nash

This involves enclosing yourself within a ‘personal world’, in which you have total control. It’s particularly popular with teenagers who want to escape their parent’s sphere of influence, frequently involving the use of computer games and loud music (the latter often on headphones, thereby increasing the power of control and exclusion). In later years, many young people indulge in ‘clubbing’ (usually with ‘rap’ or other forms of music that are incomprehensible to anyone outside their age group), participating in modern ‘dance culture’ and drugs such as ecstasy, all of which sublimate the individuals into single mass of humanity.

All these activities effectively block normal thinking, creating an illusion of happiness and preventing you from discovering that you aren’t actually in control. Numerous other escape routes are used, including promiscuous sex, drugs, drink and gambling. The consequences, which come sooner or later, are usually accompanied by a roller-coaster ride of emotional ‘ups’ and ‘downs’.

Obsessions

This is similar to escapism, in that the mind is fully occupied by one or more fixations. Although obsessive people can have an unbalanced personality, some obsessions are more harmful than others. For example, most of our greatest artists, architects, engineers and social reformers were obsessive, but their fixations were essential in order for them to reach their aim. The real problems come with obsessions that appear to ‘balance’ less harmful fixations, commonly involving sex, drink or drugs.

So, the average stamp-collector or computer enthusiast isn’t likely to be a problem case, as long as others can sometimes guide them back into the real world. The trouble is, most obsessive people are happy to stay where they are.

Consumerism

While money can’t buy happiness, it certainly lets you choose your own form of misery.

Success is getting what you want; happiness is wanting what you get.

Happiness depends, as Nature shows,

Less on exterior things than most suppose.

  — William Cowper

The Western world is based on the twin bulwarks of democracy and capitalism. History shows this to be the only way to create a stable and lasting society, allowing individuals a say in their destiny and giving them the ability to use their skills to create wealth, which in turn can be spent on goods and services. Although there isn’t any practical alternative, capitalism is flawed, requiring a continually expanding economy and an ever-growing marketplace. This means that styles, fads and fashions are always encouraged, whilst products are manufactured for lower costs with shorter and shorter lifetimes. And where products themselves can’t bring in the necessary revenue, the consumer is invited to pay again for the related services.

All this has lead to ‘retail therapy’, where you go shopping and are persuaded to buy things at what looks like a bargain price. This gives you a quick ‘rush’ of happiness, although this euphoria soon collapses on arrival back home, when you realise that you never wanted the things in the first place and that they happened to be faulty anyway. The solution adopted by many is to go shopping again and again, leaving themselves with a massive load of debt.

Flitting

Stop searching forever. Happiness is just next to you.

In many ways, this approach to unhappiness is related to the changing fashions and styles of consumerism. It involves us in a continuous search for something new, something that will provide lasting happiness. This can involve physical objects, therapies, peculiar ideas and beliefs; perhaps a bit of feng-shui, then some Zen Buddhism, followed by a spot of Kabbala for dessert. Other people’s precious cultures, many of which have been developed over hundreds or thousands of years, are treated in the same way as a disposable crisp packet; as is often said, ‘they know the price of everything and the value of nothing’.

Empowerment

Adopted by some feminist groups, empowerment enables people to do things they never thought possible, often through involvement in extreme activities. Although this works at a certain level, it often treats other people badly, reducing the humanity of the participants. Unfortunately, although being empowered may boose your confidence, it won’t change you into a God-like superhuman. When push comes to shove, there’ll be things that you can’t change and circumstances that leave you unhappy.

Counselling

Wait for that wisest of all counsellors, Time. — Pericles

Life is the only real counsellor; wisdom unfiltered through personal experience does not become a part of the moral tissue. — Edith Wharton

Go not to the elves for counsel, for they will say both yes and no. — J R R Tolkien

If your happiness depends on what somebody else does, I guess you do have a problem. — Richard Bach, ‘Illusions’

Up until a few years ago, most people solved their problems alone, possibly with the help of the family or a local doctor. They simply had to ‘pull themselves together’ or had to exercise the British ‘stiff upper-lip’. Today, there’s an entire industry of counsellors and advisers ready to help you.

Counsellors often investigate problems by looking at trauma or other events, either real or imagined, that have occurred in your childhood or earlier life. They help you recognise the problem, allow you to reconcile yourself with the situation and then move on. This is fine if it works, but if it fails, you’re in a worse state than before; not only has your problem been ‘reinforced’, but you’re now ‘conditioned’ to believe that this is due to a particular event, which you may have once thought insignificant. So now you have two problems instead of one, leading you to another counsellor, who may supply you with even more worries.

Possible Solutions

Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so. — John Stuart Mill

If only we’d stop trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time. — Edith Wharton

[Wisdom] is a tree of life to those laying hold of her, making happy each one holding her fast. — Proverbs 3:18, NSV

If happiness is in your destiny, you need not be in a hurry. — Chinese proverb

When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us. — Helen Keller

Generally speaking, the more we try to look for something, the more difficult it is to find, since the problem itself obstructs our vision. So looking for happiness itself is unlikely to result in any improvement in our condition.

Relinquishing Control

Of all men’s miseries, the bitterest is this:

to know so much and have control over nothing.

  — Herodotus

No trumpets sound when the important decisions of our life are made. Destiny is made known silently.

  — Agnes de Mille

Never underestimate luck, which can be good or bad and is uncontrollable. Half an amount or good luck is sufficient if other factors fall into place.

As already mentioned, we all love to be in control of our circumstances. But in reality, none of can command the future, which, in an instant, can sweep us all away, along with all our cherished laws and ‘rights’. The concept of our being in control is an illusion, created by ourselves to preserve our sanity in what often appears to be a dangerous and threatening world.

Once we realise that much of what we cherish doesn’t actually matter, then we don’t have to worry about it any more: we can let it go. Of course, this isn’t easy, since we don’t know whether we’ll ‘be alright in the end’. As with many other things, a belief in the supremacy and wisdom of God can make this a lot easier to handle.

Removing the Clutter

To enjoy freedom we have to control ourselves. — Virginia Woolf

One is happy as a result of one’s own efforts, once one knows the necessary ingredients of happiness — simple tastes, a certain degree of courage, self denial to a point, love of work, and, above all, a clear conscience. — George Sand

There has been a trend in recent years for wealthier people to ‘down-size’ or ‘down-shift’, by buying a smaller home, working less and having a simpler life. In many ways, this is the opposite of relinquishing control: instead, we’re taking greater control over our lives, rather than allowing things to be driven by circumstances.

This approach usually involves throwing the ‘clutter’ out of our lives, physically, mentally and spiritually. It also involves removing those things that we don’t like in ourselves, possibly causing a bit of emotional pain in the process. Worse still, we may have to reconcile ourselves with people that we don’t like, so ‘clearing the slate’ of our conscience.

If you think this sounds horribly like some kind of self-denial, then you’re right. Those in monastic orders deny almost everything for their faith, but, strangely enough, as a consequence, they arrive at happiness; they never sought it, but they receive it.

Learning to be Thankful

Count your blessings, name them one by one

Count your blessings, see what God hath done

Count your blessings, name them one by one

And will surprise you what the Lord hath done

The old Victorian church hymn shown above sounds horribly old-fashioned to modern ears, although the message remains crystal clear. Putting it bluntly, most of us in the Western world have cossetted lives, with almost all our needs satisfied. The modern age is preoccupied with ‘rights’. However, when it comes to the crunch, these are meaningless crutches. If you believe in Darwinian principles, then only the strong survive, and if you believe in God, then it is in his remit to do whatever he wishes with us. In the end, we can only be thankful for our lives and for all those that have accompanied us on our journey.

Giving Happiness

Whatever joy there is in this world all comes from desiring others to be happy. Whatever suffering there is in this world comes from desiring myself to be happy. — St. Francis

To give happiness is to deserve happiness.

Happiness adds and multiplies as we divide it with others.

There is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved. — George Sand

The keystone of Christ’s teaching is that ‘all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.’ In other words, God, you, me and everything in the universe is one, all of these things being held together by love. In fact, most people find it ‘better to give than receive’, the one that provides the gift getting the greatest happiness.

Advice for Life

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the following advice on life:-

  1. Make up your mind to be happy: learn to find pleasure in simple things.
  2. Make the best of your circumstances: no one has everything and everyone has something of sorrow intermingled with the gladness of life. The trick is to make the laughter outweigh the tears.
  3. Don’t take yourself too seriously: don’t think that somehow you should be protected from misfortune that befalls others.
  4. You can’t please everybody: don’t let criticism hurt you.
  5. Don’t let your neighbours set your standards: be yourself.
  6. Do the things you enjoy doing, but always stay out of debt.
  7. Don’t borrow trouble: imaginary things are harder to bear than actual ones.
  8. Since hate poisons the soul, don’t cherish enmities or grudges: avoid people who make you unhappy.
  9. Have many interests: if you can’t travel, read about new places.
  10. Don’t hold postmortems: don’t spend your life brooding over sorrows or mistakes: don’t be one who never gets over things.
  11. Do what you can for those less fortunate than yourself.
  12. Keep busy at something: a busy person never has time to be unhappy.

Most of this is common sense, which, although unfashionable, has always been there. If applied, along with a deeper understanding of ourselves and God, it may hopefully lead us into happier lives.

 

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©Ray White 2004.