The Paradox of Happiness
Are you happy?
I remember the first time I asked that question to my wife back when we started dating. She was caught off-guard. Now, though she got used to me asking her if she’s happy, my wife still feels uneasy. This thought-provoking question connects us with a more profound part of ourselves.
“Success is getting what you want, happiness is wanting what you get” ― W.P. Kinsella
Are you happy?
We are continually asking others “how are you?” as a formality. Not because we care. But happiness is different; it’s a serious thing.
Happiness is much more than a smile or enjoying a movie. Happiness is a mental state that we desire and fear at the same time. Even if we don’t realize it.
The Paradox of Happiness
“There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.”― George Bernard Shaw
Your pursuit of happiness can quickly turn into an obsession. The more you chase it, the less you will enjoy it.
We fear what we wish. When you are obsessed with being successful, the fear of failure paralyzes you. You then become afraid of becoming successful too. The same happens with happiness.
Don’t try to be happy if you want to be truly happy.
Research shows that North Americans highly value personal happiness, and they think about it at least once a day. This continuous pursuit of happiness can lead to adverse outcomes.
The “Dark Side of Happiness” — a term coined by Psychologists June Gruber, Iris B. Mauss, and Maya Tamir — is when an ill-constructed idea of happiness distracts someone from more meaningful aspects of life.
Trying too hard to be happy can have the opposite effect.
When you believe that finding the formula for success, becoming fitter, or wealthier, will make you happy; you stop appreciating what you already have. Continually searching for external things to increase your happiness, will always make you feel unsatisfied.
The paradox of happiness is that, when you pursue it for its own sake, you will never attain it. Being happy is a by-product of what you do and appreciating what you have. Happiness is more a state of mind than an emotion.
When you turn ‘being happy’ into a goal, you start strategizing and speculating about what will make you happy. Overthinking will only make you worry and feel frustrated.
Rather than pursuing happiness, prepare the right conditions for it to grow.
Fear of Happiness: A Cultural Thing?
“Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination.”
― Mark Twain
“I’m fine, or shall I tell you?” — this is a typical Argentinean response to “how are you?”
This saying captures the ironic mentality of my countrymen but also sheds light on how we like to play the victim to attract attention. As Leo Tolstoy said: “Happiness is an allegory, unhappiness a story.”
Some individuals embrace unhappiness as a way of getting attention.
It isn’t that people don’t want to be happy, but they fear it without knowing. Some cultures believe that being happy will come at a high price or will be followed by calamity. Others feel guilty of experiencing joy while others suffer.
“Extreme happiness begets tragedy” — Chinese proverb
Taoism states that all things in the world are in a state of constant change. Chinese culture, among others under the influence of Taoism, believes that eventually, everything reverts to the opposite. For Taoists, happiness will ultimately turn into unhappiness and the other way around.
Our culture plays a significant influence on why we fear happiness, as explained by the “Fear of Happiness Scale Global Study.” In the Islamic perspective, superficial or worldly happiness may be an indicator of distance from God. In Malawi, people regard successful individuals with suspicion because they may have used unfair means to achieve it.
The same study revealed that Americans were more inclined than Japanese to savor positive emotions.
Most Western cultures view happiness as a valuable goal that should be pursued. It’s an American cultural paradigm that failing to appear happy is a cause for concern. Western cultures see happiness as an individual pursuit rather than a collective one.
Americans have never been the happiest bunch in the world, according to another study on Happiness by Harris Poll. Only 33% of Americans surveyed said they were happy. Distraction and a lack of control may be part of the reason why.
“We are so caught up in our texting, multitasking, jobs, and commutes that we seem to have less and less free time. Older people age 65+ are the happiest.” — explains John Gerzema, CEO of the Harris Poll to Time.
But culture is just one of the many layers of who we are, as I wrote here. Happiness is a personal choice. But first, you need to understand the difference between being happy and feeling happy.
Happiness: An Emotion or A State of Mind?
“Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” ― Ernest Hemingway
hap·pi·ness — noun
the state of being happy.
Happiness is elusive. Even its definition seems abstract.
Edward F. Diener, an American psychologist and happiness expert, coined the term “Subjective Well-being” to describe how people evaluate their lives. The “SWB” index considers: global judgment (life satisfaction or fulfillment), evaluating the domains of their lives (relationships or work), or their emotional feelings about what is happening to them.
Subjective well-being is a personal assessment done by the individual, not by experts. Diener believes that, in general, people are happy if they think they are happy.
Happiness is not a single thing but a system. Feeling happy — the emotion — is just one part, not the whole. Some authors believe that happiness is both internal and external. While income is not highly correlated with happiness, Diener has found that social relationships are.
Religious beliefs give people a sense of meaning, according to psychologist Catherine Sanderson. “It also gives them a social network, a sense of well being or comfort.” — the professor also said.
Happiness is not a gift that you can give. It’s a personal decision.
The more we try to understand happiness, the farther away we get from it.
For Buddhists, the path to happiness starts by understanding the root causes of suffering. The Buddha referred to the mind as a wild horse. It likes to run fast and freely, chasing one thought after another. We have to tame it by becoming more mindful, practicing meditation, and being more compassionate.
Our reactions and emotions make us worry. Happiness is the consequence of taming the wild horse that is our mind.
The journey to happiness requires looking into the face of reality. Buddhism focuses on taming the mind and its various delusions, misunderstandings, and cravings. To attain equanimity — a deep sense of well-being and happiness — requires daily learning and practice.
Both approaches — Subjective Well-being and Buddhism — agree that happiness is something that needs to be nurtured; it’s more than an emotion. Happiness is a state of mind.
How can you turn happiness into a superpower?
Happiness Is Our Biggest Asset
“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” ― Albert Camus
Happiness is how people evaluate their own lives. And that collective perception has a powerful effect.
Take the case of Bhutan: collective happiness defines its Gross Domestic Product. This is anything but a marketing slogan. I visited Bhutan eight years ago witnessed its real impact.
We are trained to measure success by the economic value of what we produce. But what’s the point of a fast-growing economy that is unfair, where people are unhappy and dissatisfied?
Bhutan’s “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) index central tenets are “sustainable and equitable socio-economic development; environmental conservation; preservation and promotion of culture; and good governance.”
GNH promotes collective happiness, not just personal, as the goal of governance. As Dasho Karma Ura told the New York Times: “Life is not sequential like this. You don’t say that I want to become rich first and happy later. People feel happy when they see something ethical.”
Happiness is not just a dreamy state of mind. It creates measurable outcomes, as demonstrated by various studies:
- Happy people have stronger immune systems and tend to live longer.
- Happy people are more creative.
- Happy people are more collaborative at work.
- Happy people are more successful in their personal and professional lives.
- Happy people do better in social relationships.
- Happy people effectively bounce back from adversity.
- Happy people are more accepting of themselves and others.
Happiness is your biggest asset.
What Is Happiness to You?
“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” ― Mahatma Gandhi
Happiness is not linear. We are continually redefining our relationship with it. That happened to me as I was writing this post. Happiness is a state of mind where all our pieces fall into the right place.
What is happiness to you?
Here are some final thoughts to stimulate your self-reflection.
- Happiness is acceptance of who we are. Things come and go. You can face adversity and still be happy. When you accept who you are, you are in peace. “Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions.” ― Dalai Lama XIV
- Your social relationships are your roots. Even the most robust trees need grounding. Regardless of your strengths or how accepting you are of your true-self, you still need others. Your friends or family can provide the strength you need to overcome adversity.
- Happiness is a personal choice: Stop looking for external solutions that will make you happy. The answer is inside of you. Things or people can’t make you happy; it’s your choice to feel that way. “For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Your happiness is part of an ecosystem. We are part of the larger collective happiness; we are connected to the World and Nature. Caring about the world and community we live improves our state of mind. You can’t be happy in your own bubble.
- Happiness is collective, not personal. Becoming a better person means positive influencing those around us. Happiness is a byproduct of putting the interests of others before yourself. Happy people don’t make their personal happiness their main goal.
- Being present helps deal with hardship. Not checking out when things get ugly encourages us to embrace the present moment fully. To stop being at war with reality and accept life as is. Being mindfully present helps us both deal with life when it’s uncomfortable and to not feel guilty when things are doing great.
- Happy people age better. There’s a direct link between how satisfied you are in your relationship with a longer life expectancy. As Robert Waldinger said in his popular TED Talk: “When we gathered together everything we knew about them about at age 50, it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old.”
What does happiness mean to you?