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Blog // Thoughts
October 26, 2012

Happiness And Other Choices

Is happiness over rated? I’ve been throwing that (and similar) questions out on Twitter for a few days now and the responses have been fascinating. Everything from total agreement, to questioning whether I even know what happiness is (apparently because I dared to ask others what they thought about the topic).

Flying Over Southern Skies

I’m curious, because happiness has become something of a buzzword in recent years. Look at the bookshelves and study the popular blogs and you’ll see a veritable happiness industry. It seems there’s a market out there for happiness.

The Words We Use

How we choose to describe our life and how we express our hopes and desires can say a lot about our deepest beliefs. I wonder if the words we use can sometimes shape us; perhaps more than we might imagine?

Happiness is a word I hear and read a lot these days. While being happy, or experiencing happiness over extended periods of time is wonderful. How important is happiness and should it be a primary goal in life?

Take a look at this article which asks you to consider “…10 words that best represent your values, lifestyle, beliefs, desires and needs.” There’s a number of lists, reflecting different cultures and stages of life. None of them mention happiness.

Consequences Are Not Goals

The Island Where People Forget To Die, is a brilliant New York Times article exploring longevity on the Greek island of Ikaria, where residents have a simple, stress-free and incredibly healthy pattern of life and seem to live far longer (and more disease free) than people in more economically prosperous situations.

The lives of the elderly residents of Ikaria suggest plenty of happiness, but also some other, perhaps more important factors, like contentment and what the residents of Okinawa call “ikigai”, or “the reason for which you wake up in the morning.”

I believe the happiness we sense in these people’s lives is a consequence of the way they live and most importantly, a consequence of the way their life is different from most of ours.

The High Cost Of Ambiguity And Choice

The residents of Ikaria have less than most of us who live the consumerist western lifestyle. They have fewer things and fewer possessions, but they also have fewer choices and far less ambiguity in their lives.

How different are their lives? Well, imagine not changing your major relationships, place of residence, religion, or life values for your whole life? How many people do we know who seem to change all of those every decade?

Having options and choices is valuable. It is good to able to reconfigure your life when things are really not working, or your situation is destructive. But, most of us live bombarded by choice, even paralysed by it at times. When even the smallest decisions in life are ambiguous and open to choice, there has to some kind of emotional cost involved (something Barry Schwartz explores in The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less).

“Happiness is a garden walled with glass: there’s no way in or out. In Paradise there are no stories, because there are no journeys. It’s loss and regret and misery and yearning that drive the story forward, along its twisted road.”
Margaret Atwood

Sub-Human Obsessions

Making Happiness our goal feels misguided, perhaps even sub-human. Life is at times tragic and those tragedies give our experience a sense of depth and urgency. The happiness obssesed outlook often seems flat to me, it doesn’t do justice to the majesty of human existence. I’m not sure how we can ever really create art (or for that matter, any meaningful social change) when our focus is fixed on day to day happiness.

The Perfect Picnic

Another Adelaide Sunset

I posted this image on Instagram and Twitter and asked the question – “Do Adelaideans have a word for watching an awesome sunset while eating amazing local food with fantastic local wine?” I loved the answers people gave like, awesome, paradise and bliss (though “evening” was the closest anyone came to the ultimate smart alec response, “normal”).

There’s no question this was a happy moment. My daughter had packed a great little picnic hamper and we ate, in between taking photos of the sunset and joking around on the beach. But, it was a beautiful pause in the midst of a taxing week at the back end of a very challenging year. The meaning of the moment was as much in the contrast it added to the rest of our lives along with the joy it gave us for a few hours.

Responses
Matt Brandon 8 years ago

I think contentment is the key here. A wise man once said, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” he later went on to sayb ” I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” But he never once talked about being happy. All that to say, I think contentment comes when we focus on the good i.e. the list above. At that point “happiness” or whatever it is called is sure to follow.

Jessica Mendes 8 years ago

I like this piece — it raises important questions, I think. I happen to agree that making happiness our goal feels almost sub-human. The New Age movement is full of ideologies that market happiness as the holy grail, but I believe the thinking associated with this pervades our culture at every turn.

Personally, it doesn’t make sense to me to chase it, because so much of what gives life meaning and vitality and creative expression includes the full spectrum of human experience. I just turned 50, and the older I get the more my values come into focus. The reigning priority for me is to discover what MY life is, MY path, my questions. I no longer want to waste any time living someone else’s version of a good life.

Another phrase you use jumps out at me. “I wonder if the words we use can sometimes shape us; perhaps more than we might imagine?” Thomas Moore (The Original Self) once said that “imagination is more weighty than fact”. I am inclined to think that how we imagine what is happening to us, and how we imagine what WILL happen, also helps to shape our experience and, over many years, the person that we end up becoming.

Thank you for this, Fernando — so happy to have found you. I will refer to this, perhaps, for inspiration on my own blog.

Jessica

    Fernando Gros 8 years ago

    Jessica – thank you for your comments. I’m glad they were helpful.

    I don’t like to single out any one movement, but I do agree the books on happiness I see on the bookshelves of many stores reflect some popular outlooks that make less and less sense to me as I get older. Your thoughts and the quote from Thomas Moore really resonate with me. Thank you.

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