The Delusions of Happiness

Happiness is relative, but I’ve been really happy lately.  Secrets to happiness? Yes, I’ve got those. Try exercising, meditation, setting goals, spending time with friends and family, trying new things. Those should all sound familiar; people tell you those things all the time and they may or may not work for you. The real secret? I’ll get to that in a moment… (and it isn’t something foolish like follow-through).

Meditation, though. That’s something people are hot about lately. “It’s like a key that opens the door to the treasury within,” filmmaker David Lynch tells a New York Times columnist. “Here’s an experience — poooft! — total brain coherence. It’s what’s missing from life today: unbounded intelligence, creativity, bliss, love, energy, peace. Things like tension, anxieties, traumatic stress, sorrow, depression, hate, rage, need for revenge, fear — poooft! — all this starts to lift away. You see life getting better and better and better. Give the people that experience and — poooft. Man, it’s beautiful.”

This coming from the man who created Twin Peaks and Mullholland Drive. The point of meditation isn’t bliss (as any earnest attempt to understand the practice will reveal), but let’s look at the delusions supported in Lynch’s statement – primarily, that meditation will bring you peace. While the practice certainly can do that for you momentarily, we are decidedly fooling ourselves if we think that we can rid ourselves of negative emotions all together.

A great many people try and fail in that pursuit of happiness. Blogger Jenny Blake wrote a book on the topic and shortly after its launch admitted that “The book is meant to be aspirational — even for me.” It’s aspirational, but is presented as realistic. No one could possibly do or be everything in Blake’s book, and yet, that is the ambition. Why is impossible the ideal?

Society gets off on when you compare yourself to others, when you try to live by other’s beliefs, or when you try to get others to live by yours, and so and so forth. Unconditional happiness is just as destructive as uncontrollable anger. But the happiness ideal states you should learn from failures (instead of feel upset) and find lessons in whatever goes wrong. Theoretically, these happy nuggets serve to make sense of your pain but in reality, all they do is suppress it which is exhausting.

“Those who keep a check on their frustrations are at least three times more likely to admit they have disappointing personal lives and have hit a glass ceiling in their career. But those who let their anger out in a constructive manner were more likely to be professionally well-established, as well as enjoy emotional and physical intimacy with loved ones,” reports a study by the Harvard Study of Adult Development.

“People think of anger as a terribly dangerous emotion and are encouraged to practise ‘positive thinking’, but we find that approach is self-defeating and ultimately a damaging denial of dreadful reality,” says Professor George Vaillant, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School.

Let’s go back to meditation. One type of meditation is yoga, which is a study in the union of opposites (think Dog/Cat). In that vein, I’d like to suggest that happiness is not the end goal, but that you are always feeling happiness, and you are always feeling pain, in every moment. And that the union of these two emotions, and indeed many others, is the end goal, not the glorification of one over the other.

Struggle isn’t something to overcome then (and feel good about after), but just is. Some days things will go your way, and some days they won’t. Personal growth advocates assume you want to avoid those bad days whereas I don’t think that’s possible or necessary. In the moment you are failing, you are also succeeding.

Life is great and it sucks, always simultaneously. Most people can’t live in that environment so they live in delusions. Religion, personal development, companies – all are too eager to create those delusions for you. But life is a duality and I’m all for happiness, just not at the sacrifice of negativity, depression, anger, tension, anxiety, stress, hate, rage, or sorrow.