Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Suffering?

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Suffering?

I have been avoiding the word “happy” in my writing and conversations ever since I became aware that many people perceive happiness these days as a fluffy and delusional outlook on life. I’m not sure where this started but it has now seemingly reached critical mass in our society.

The same people will often say that real life consists of effort, sacrifice, self-denial, abandonment of integrity, and all manner of concepts that go by the universally accepted notion of “paying your dues” for some future prize. And, those values all have something else in common: we expect every version of “paying your dues” to feel bad in the doing of it.

One of my interests is following trends in the realms of self-help and personal development. My studies in these areas have taught me much about the value of being less critical of myself and more accepting of those things which make me human. But the value is not in the knowledge, the value is in how much better I feel inside my own skin.

The real hurdle to happiness and feeling good about life is not a lack of knowledge, it is in recognizing feeling better as a contributor to life. Many people defend an internal form of suffering — a.k.a., feeling bad — because they believe it helps them be more motivated, productive or a “better person”. In other words, it is the obviously twisted belief that a poor experience of life is the only path to self-improvement. What kind of self-improvement is that anyway?

Yet, at the heart of life, being happy is still what we all want, but we have recently been convinced that it is destructive to the pursuit of the modern-day version of success. Ironically, as the belief goes, it is available as a result of some rare accomplishment or wealth that few will ever know. And, that accomplishments and wealth are achieved through “paying your dues”, which is code for suffering as a means to achievement.

That keeps the new version of happiness available only to those who have already satisfied their life’s desires, and treats the rest of us as unworthy of that experience. I have a close personal friend who vehemently defends his own internal suffering as crucial to his future success. This caused me to ask: when did “happy” become a vice, and “unhappy” become a virtue?

As a way to promote being unhappy as a virtue, a few (self-proclaimed) experts on personal development and success portray happiness seekers as losers that use a “delusional search for happiness” as a way to avoid the “hard work of success’’. In these circles self-acceptance and happiness are often spoken of as being mutually exclusive of achievement and success.

But do we really have to choose between happy and successful, or have we simply lost the real meaning of the words? What if, instead, happiness was the same experience it has always been, regardless of what we choose to call it? If happiness was as simple as the excitement of being alive, it would still be a noticeably great feeling and, therefore, a contributor to life. We already know that being unhappy is the opposite of that: a dissatisfaction with life, and a noticeably not-so-good feeling. Which of these describes your version of success?

Even to the casual observer, genuine happiness is rare in modern life. Perhaps that’s because it is just a word until we attach an experience to it. When we lose touch with the experience of it we will instead treat it as just a theory that is available for debate. Lacking this clear connection between the word and experience, it is easy to hijack the meaning of words for private agendas; mostly profits.

But the experiences that were previously connected to the words remain as constant and positive as they have always been. And, in the case of happiness, ultimately desirable. When the connection between language and experience is strong, the meaning also remains strong. When that connection is broken, the word is set adrift and becomes available for misuse.

The reason private agendas are attempting to shift your attention away from the pursuit of happiness is that happiness cannot be productized; in other words, there are far fewer ways to profit from people who feel good. It is an entirely individual pursuit for which there are no experts, formulas, or measurements. You may have missed the fact that quantification, experts, and formulas are the underlying themes of all advertising and marketing language.

Adding to the incentive to discredit happiness is the fact that people who feel bad about themselves and are dissatisfied with life (a.k.a., unhappy) are always more compliant and passive in their choices. A compliant and passive customer base is the holy grail of marketing. Those hapless folks are far more susceptible to advertising hype promoting the belief that feeling good is only available for purchase.

Purely personal experiences can never be bought, sold, or even accurately represented in language. That makes a concept like “happy” unsuitable as a profit-center. In addition, being happy removes the perceived need for many things that are profitable, which makes happiness the enemy of free-market profiteering.

So, the experience of “happy” is the same as it has always been and, as such, it is still free, unaffected by circumstance or money, and, therefore, available to anyone for the choosing. What’s shifted is our connection to that experience, and how the word is portrayed in modern times. Self-acceptance is the practice of honoring your life. Happiness is the experience of honoring your life. Both the practice and the experience only occur in the present moment, and the only requirement for achieving either is to cease defending something less.

While defining happiness — or any experience — directly, and in any meaningful way, will remain elusive, we can know what it is NOT. If we know that happiness is never more or less than feeling good, and that happiness is always desirable, then it doesn’t matter what we call it as long as we also know that being unhappy is not a path to anywhere you want to be. Feeling good is still feeling good, and happiness is what we have always called it.

Will being happy hurt your chances for success? That is something no one can answer because we all have a different idea of what success is. But what I can say is that happy people value integrity, compassion, and relationships above all other pursuits because they all raise the level of our experience. Any version of their success will include those values first. If you believe those values limit your options for success, then your choice will not be a matter of success or no success, your choice will be a matter of how you want to feel.

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