You don't have to understand the world. You just have to find your own way around in it. - Albert Einstein

Friday, 6 May 2016

on the Pursuit of Happiness

I came across this quote by Australian writer Hugh Mackay last night. It struck a chord with me, and I’ve found my thoughts returning to it throughout the night and this morning. It articulates my own feelings on the subject quite well.
"I don’t mind people being happy – but the idea that everything we do is part of the pursuit of happiness seems to me a really dangerous idea and has led to a contemporary disease in Western society, which is fear of sadness. It’s a really odd thing that we’re now seeing people saying 'write down 3 things that made you happy today before you go to sleep', and 'cheer up' and 'happiness is our birthright' and so on. We’re kind of teaching our kids that happiness is the default position – it’s rubbish. Wholeness is what we ought to be striving for and part of that is sadness, disappointment, frustration, failure; all of those things which make us who we are. Happiness and victory and fulfillment are nice little things that also happen to us, but they don’t teach us much. Everyone says we grow through pain and then as soon as they experience pain they say 'Quick! Move on! Cheer up!'. I’d like just for a year to have a moratorium on the word 'happiness' and to replace it with the word 'wholeness'. Ask yourself 'is this contributing to my wholeness?' and if you’re having a bad day, it is.”
The western world has a culture of trying to be happy, trying to find happiness, to follow our bliss or however you want to put it. But in spite of all this freedom to do so, we’re not getting any happier than our ancestors, who never had a cultural construct in which to question whether or not they were happy with their lives, and whether they might have other options, or what they should do to make themselves happier.  Life was just what it was, and they got on with it. I believe they were better off for it.
I’ve had clinical depression for nearly 30 years. I had two major nervous breakdowns before I left my teens, and another in my mid-20’s (which was most certainly partly caused by trying to follow an idea of happiness, and being bummed that it didn’t work). I had a huge breakthrough when I just gave up thinking of happiness as something that’s important. I don’t even ask myself or wonder if a particular course of action will make me happy or not – it’s not even a criterion for decisions. And I can affirm that life is definitely better and easier this way.
This is an attitude that gets me a lot of criticism from people who are strongly engaged in a philosophy of ‘positivity’ and are into searching for happiness. They think I might be depressed because I fail to pursue and find happiness. I know that’s not true. Depression is a constant – it’s just the state of my brain, probably, I think, as a side effect of having epilepsy and autism. Just faulty wiring. How I deal with depression and the rest of my life is another matter – that’s an active, continuing process and function. It turns out that trying to be happy really doesn’t help at all, and just wastes a lot of energy that could be put into making life as it already is easier to deal with.
It’s not that I don’t feel happiness. I often feel happy. I recognise that I’m feeling it and I appreciate it. I do feel sad more often – that’s part of clinical depression. My point is that I no longer measure the balance or deliberately try to change it. I just get on with life anyway.
Gratitude is a buzzword I’m hearing a lot of people go on about lately. Apparently, we can all make ourselves happier by reminding ourselves to be grateful. It’s pretty much an industry in itself these days, where you can buy a blank book that says ‘Gratitude’ somewhere on the cover, which is supposed to make it somehow more useful in making life ‘better’ than a plain blank notebook would be, or attend a ‘gratitude’ workshop for a fee. I can see that this would have benefits as a cognitive training exercise, for some people who are unduly obsessing on needs or desires and forgetting to recognise or acknowledge all the wonderfulness along the way. But it’s become oversimplified in the process of commercialisation into an equation where basically, more gratitude equals more happiness, and therefore, if you don’t have enough happiness, you must be in need of more gratitude.
I experience gratitude deeply, profoundly and frequently. Several times a day, I’ll spontaneously need to have to take a second to take a breath and allow the intensity of the feeling of gratitude to wash through me. I don’t need to make myself do this, it just happens. A lot. Common triggers include lying down in a comfortable bed, reading excellent writing, the taste of food, the kindness of others, and the beauty and sheer marvel of the natural world. This happens consistently, regardless of whether I’m in a good or a poor mood or state of mind. I sometimes wonder whether I have a need for God in my life partly out of need to ascribe some agent of existence toward which I can direct my gratitude. I often read that people tend to forget God until they’re in trouble and need help, and then they pray. I find the opposite happens to me – I can forget God for a while, until I’m confronted with something, usually a phenomenon of nature, that overwhelms me with wonder, and then I need God to have something to be thankful to, and to rationalise the thrill, not the misery, of existence. So I know that a lack of gratitude is not the cause of my depression.
I think people find the nature of my illness confronting. They don’t want to believe it exists, perhaps, so they try to define clinical depression as a lack of something – sufficient pursuit of happiness, or whatever – on my part. I’m not buying it. If you want to follow happiness, and you’re not hurting anybody else in order to do so, well off you go then, whatever floats your boat and bakes your potatoes, mate. I really can be happy for you, truly. But if you’re trying to tell me how to fix life with happiness, you’re wasting your time. I’ve already tried out that particular philosophy, and I know that I’m better off without it.


  1. Potent words. Yours and Hugh Mackay's. I've been teaching a seminar the last few years, and one question I ask the students is, what is happiness? They find it hard to define - or have many different definitions. We talk about much of what you write here and I share that, for me, happiness is fleeting and maybe a more useful word is joy, but again, these don't feel like constant states - or something to spend time striving for. For me, if I am inspired and engaged with the world, and feel inspired by my creative endeavors and by others, then I feel more of a sense of belonging and have a sense of there being meaning in my world. There can be feelings of contentment and satisfaction and, yes, gratitude in many things, but I can often feel sad, too. In the seminar, I share the words of Clarissa Pinkola Estes when she quotes her aunt, I think, "Mountains were made by earthquakes" to bring up how the hard things help us to grow and find our strength. I am not clinically depressed, but I feel things very deeply and have had a few major underworld journeys, usually triggered by grief and loss. These dark journeys are rich and deep and have gifted me in powerful ways when I surrendered to them, sitting in the mystery until the gifts were revealed. And don't get me started on the commodification of EVERYTHING including gratitude. Ugh. The British storyteller, Martin Shaw, said recently that there is so much focus on growth, but what about depth? Yes, that's it. Depth. The deeper I go into the murky shadows of what it means to be alive on the earth with all its messiness and pain, the richer and more beautiful my life is. Am I happier? I don't know and I don't care, that is so not the point.

  2. I bow to your honesty expressed in this post. I, for one, do not find your illness confronting - I find it real, and through a couple relationships in my life I've learned much about it and feel great compassion. And I've even wondered from time to time if it walks with me. Really, this is a great post - spot on in so many ways.

  3. I have to admit, that is one of the more thought-provoking quotes that I have ever read in my entire life...thank you for introducing me to this :) and to your blog. Now following via email!