Happiness has been a major buzz word in magazines, books, online blogs (like this one) and a source of philosophical inquiry for centuries. The fact is, happiness is what people want in life and it sells. But what is happiness and is that really the aim of life? Some pretty influential people seem to think so.
It is the Dalai Lama who tells us “I believe that the very purpose of life is to be happy” and Aristotle who said “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” These two leaders are from different cultures, religions and philosophies, yet have markedly similar views.
I believe wholeheartedly that we all want to be happy. So we walk down the aisles of the book stores, see the magazines at the checkout lines or surf through the various blog posts and news stories and see invitations to read this or do that to be happy. But do we know what we mean when we say we want to be happy? Are we all talking about the same definition of happiness?
The simple answer is no.
Some people think that happiness can be measured by someone’s life satisfaction and the amount of positive emotion they experience; while others believe it’s more about having a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Both are defined as happiness and there are deep camps of people that firmly believe one is more right than the other.
Martin Seligman is past American Psychological Association (APA) president and in 2006 came out with a book called Authentic Happiness. This book focused on helping us connect with what we value and cultivate our personal strengths in life and this would lead to true happiness. Recently, he came out saying that he believes his earlier work was overly simplistic and is now promoting a new book called Flourish, which says that it’s not all about happiness, it’s about an acronym he created called Perma” (positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment).
How do we Flourish? The idea here is to find which of these matter most to you, create a goal on how to improve this in your life, a plan on how to reach that goal and then monitor it.
But what does it mean when Thich Nhat Hanh, a longtime Buddhist Monk, peace activist, author and poet says, “There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way”?
Oh boy, this can all get kind of confusing.
At the end of the day, there are a lot of writings and prescriptions out there to be happy, flourish, thrive, and generally feel well. We can point the compass in the general direction of what we believe will provide us a sense of inner peace, but there will be deviations along the way. We’ll get sick, anxious, depressed, or experience trauma.
This can lead to what might be called a “Happiness Trap.” For Seligman’s book, this could also be called a“Flourishing Trap.”
In my view, we’re in danger of falling into this trap when we’re constantly striving to be somewhere else than where we are. This focuses on a gap between where we are and where we want to be reinforcing a cycle of deficiency. The more we try to be somewhere else than where we are, the message that gets reinforced is “something is wrong with me.” It’s important to be mindful of this trap as it’s easy to slip into.
I’m not suggesting staying away from titles or programs with the intention of helping you thrive, flourish or be happy, just to notice that if this trap occurs, to bring yourself back to the present moment and nurture the ability to be with the uncomfortable emotion with a kind attention. This inevitably waters the seeds of self-love, which is the foundation for feeling well. Even the happiness trap can be an opportunity to cultivate the ability to be present and loving in the midst of our personal storms. This is closer to what Sharon Salzberg calls Real Happiness.
I have my views of how to nurture a sense of goodness, which is a practice of self-love, being kind to myself in the difficult moments, cultivating caring relationships with others, engaging causes I believe will help others and having the belief that all of this actually lends itself to a better world. I’m not perfect at it, but I also practice making peace with my imperfections. But this is the direction of my compass, perhaps not yours and that is perfectly okay.
The truth is you are your best teacher when it comes to this life. So whether you’re drawn to authentic happiness, flourishing, real happiness, stumbling on happiness or the happiness project, it works best when we treat all of these prescriptions as an experiment, dropping our expectations for results and just seeing what we find. If we really want to give it our best effort, it’s often most effect to surround ourselves with a community of people who are trying to do the same to help sustain intention. Even if the only thing that is available is an online community.
See what works best for you and let the rest of us know. Your interaction below provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.
Photo by Koshy Koshy, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.
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Last reviewed: 26 May 2011