For the past few months, the idea of happiness, specifically the pursuit of it, has dominated the majority of conversations I’ve had with friends. This could be related to the fact that many of us are in the awkward, transitional, twenty-something phase of life where we are attempting to decide who we are, what we like, and how we plan on spending the time we have been gifted here on planet Earth. The list of things we collectively believe are necessary to lead a happier existence is long and varied:
A new job
A loving partner
Less familial drama
A change of environment
A cooler life
And the list goes on.
In one of the more recent conversations, which took place during happy hour, somewhere between my second and third Manhattan, I posed the idea to a friend that maybe it was our insistence on being happy all the time that was actually making us unhappy. I wish I could have taken credit for this line of thinking but the notion of no longer making happiness the chief aim of my life came while reading Victor Frankls’, Man’s Search For Meaning, which is an AMAZING book that I recommend everyone everywhere read. In the book Frankl states:
Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.
I read this line over and over again, feeling as if Viktor – because I’m on a first name basis with all the authors I enjoy – had let me in on some secret. The idea that I might be happier if I stopped thinking about wanting to be happy had never occurred to me. It shifted the way I thought about life and how I approached conversations with my friends around the topic.
I began to notice in our discussions that we each attached the possibility of our future happiness to some “thing” outside of ourselves – whether that be a boo, a new environment, more money, or even better sex – and the goal we had set for obtaining said “thing” was keeping us from enjoying our present realities. Why? Because we were so focused on achieving some end that was often beyond our control. After this realization, I told my friends I was giving up on wanting to be happy and instead had decided that pursuing peace might be a more worthy aim.
You see, peace, unlike happiness, is a feeling we develop internally. It is a state of tranquility that can be experienced even in spite of circumstances that might be less than optimal. Peace affords us a space where we can be content with life’s waiting periods, while the desire for consistent happiness imagines the waiting periods to be wastes of time and impediments to progress. A desire for peace allows satisfaction with our life as it currently is, while the pursuit of happiness often pushes us to consider what is wrong with our life instead of what is right.
Since taking on peace as my goal, I’ve realized that learning to be at peace with life is a difficult process and is much easier said than done. It requires one to focus in on the present and appreciate it for what it is. For those of us currently caught in the awkward, transitional, twenty-something phase where we are constantly worried about what our futures will look like, taking the time to find contentment in our current lives may not be where we place much of our attention.
There is always some “thing” we want and don’t have. There is always some “thing” that could make us happier. The homie, Viktor, because I also imagine I am close personal friends with the authors I enjoy, helped me recognize my life could be a more enjoyable place if I committed myself to loving it for what it is rather than agonizing over what it isn’t.
I’ve given up on chasing happiness. I hope you’ll consider joining me.