An interesting fact of life is that one rarely finds happiness by looking for it. I’ve been coming across this idea in many different places – a couple of books, a YouTube video and an article I read today. Although the sources present the idea in different contexts, they all contain the same idea. Let us then explore why you shouldn’t pursue happiness.
Actively chasing after Happiness is a sure way of not finding it
To understand this, consider another emotion – anger. We all know that the way to deal with anger is to analyse what we are angry about. Many of us who might have done this would realise that by the time we are done analysing we are no longer angry. Another example could be the experience of watching an engrossing cricket match (which is making you happy). Would your happiness be uninterrupted if someone switched off the TV to ask you whether the match was really making you happy? Lewis explains this really well.
The surest way of spoiling a pleasure was to start examining your satisfaction.
Happiness is found in losing yourself in something outside of yourself
In an earlier blog post, I made a reference to the insight of Sean Dorrance Kelly and Hubert Drufus from their book “All Things Shining” as quoted by Cal Newport. They say that during the Renaissance, people lost faith in religion and God. Although this was good politically, they claim it lead to a loss of transcendence and ultimately, to a loss of purpose for many. In their own words, “the Enlightenment’s embrace of the autonomous individual leads not just to a boring life, it leads almost inevitably to a nearly unlivable one.” The solution, according to them, is to find purpose in craft. Since the material of the craft is outside the self, the craftsman doesn’t have to generate meaning, he merely has to cultivate the skill of discerning the meaning that is already there.
There is some truth to this solution. As we saw in the example of watching a cricket match, happiness lies not in looking for happiness, but in losing oneself in the match. The same is true with TV shows or movies or even books. When one is engrossed in something, they lose a sense of themselves to the point of ignoring basic human needs (such as sleep or food). I say “some truth” because surely there is more to happiness than merely work (or play)!
Having a grand vision of work leads to happiness
In the above mentioned lines, Drufus and Kelly are not really talking about finding happiness. They are talking about finding purpose in work. But I believe the two are connected. Many people who are happy in life are people who have a strong sense of satisfaction in their work. In other words, they believe that what they are doing is meaningful. This is why it is easier to find happier people among those who pursue a craft, or a skill like sports or music. In a sense, they do what they are “passionate” about.
However, one can easily be passionate about any job. For this though, we need to be able to situate our work in the larger context of meeting people’s needs. In doing so, we’d be locating our purpose and happiness outside of our selves (in the needs of others). In other words, we need to situate our work within the context of how we are serving others. If you are a delivery worker, your service is essential to people getting basic necessities and living life well. If you are a sales executive, your work is crucial in letting people know about solutions that exist to their problems. If you are an accountant, your work is crucial in helping people make sense of their (and their company’s) finances and fulfil their obligations (such as taxes). If you are a student, what you study can (and will) be used in some service toward others. In short, what we need is a grand vision of work and play and life – a grand vision on a cosmic scale.