The pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of misery

In the days leading up to the end of 2011, I’ve been thinking back about the most important lessons that I have learnt throughout the course of the year.

Interestingly, one of the most important and useful lesson that I’ve come to realise is that the pursuit of happiness is as good as pursuing misery.

At first glance, it seems rather odd, but there is a lot of truth behind this principle.

One of the worse things we can do to ourselves is to ask the following questions: “Am I happy?” or “What else do I need to be happy?”

The reason why I say that the pursuit of happiness leads one to misery is due to the problem of language.

Perhaps it would be useful to provide an illustration of the problem: If I tell you that the sky is cloudy, what comes to your mind? Most people will say that the sky is grey. But is the sky really grey? Well, not always. You can have a blue sky despite it being cloudy. And for that matter, if it was night, the sky would be black. Unfortunately, when we use the term, “cloudy sky,” we carve out a particular conception of the sky which does not fully exhaust other possibilities, and for that matter, that conception may sometimes include other things which are simply not relevant to our own situation.

This has been a huge problem to Taoist philosophers, as highlighted in the Tao Te Ching:

道可道,非常道。名可名,非常名。無名天地之始;有名萬物之母。故常無欲,以觀其妙;常有欲,以觀其徼。此兩者,同出而異名,同謂之玄。玄之又玄,衆妙之門。

Ways can be guided; they are not fixed ways.
Names can be named; they are not fixed names.
“Absence” names the cosmic horizon,
“Presence names the mother of ten thousand natural kinds.
Fixing on “absence” is to want to view enigmas.
Fixing on “presence” is to want to view phenomena.
These two, emerging together, we name differently.
Conceiving of them as being one: call that “fathomless.”
Calling it “fathomless” is still not to fathom it.
… the door of a cluster of puzzles.

Tao Te Ching (道德經), n.1, trans. Chad Hansen (2009)

Therefore, when we ask ourselves the question, “Am I happy?” or “What must I do to be happy?”, we carve out a particular conception of what that happiness entails (and what it means to be unhappy), and use that as the benchmark for measuring our own happiness. But little do we know that that idea of what it means to be happy has its own flaws. We might already be happy, but as we compare our present situation with that ideal, we begin to see just how far away we are from that ideal of happiness (and see just how many of our present experiences are classed under “unhappiness”). And the more we do this comparison and see just how far we are from that “happy” ideal, the more miserable we feel. The conclusion, at the end of the day is – “Oh! I’m not happy.”

Whenever I’m busy concentrating on something, some people have a tendency to misinterpret my facial expression as that of feeling depressed. There used to be this moron who used to come up to me everyday asking me if I was really happy with my life every morning. What a way to spoil one’s day. I was actually feeling quite fine – serene and calm – with absolutely no tinge of negative emotions or thoughts. But when I was asked, “Are you happy? You look like you’re not.” I began comparing my present state with the ideal of what it means to be happy. And after a while, I became very very depressed.

It was only many years later when I started studying Chinese philosophy that I looked back and realised just how stupid I was in carrying out such a comparison. Of course I’d be miserable. And for that matter, anyone who does such a comparison will just end up feeling depressed, as one becomes convinced that one is far from happiness.

(While typing this, I realised that when we ask such questions about happiness, we unknowingly accept a fatal assumption. “What must I do to be happy?”, implies that one is currently unhappy and wants to get out of this situation. “Am I happy?” doubts the possibility that I am actually happy right here, and right now.)

And of course, the misery doesn’t end there. When we begin asking ourselves what we need to do to be happy, we try to force ourselves into a particular mold, doing our very best to fit into a vision of happiness.

But surely – one may ask – one could arrive at the destination and finally attain happiness, right?

Well, no.

The problem is that happiness is an ideal, an abstract concept with no detailed specifications of the final end. No matter how much one tries to fit into that ideal mold, when we try to compare our present state with that ideal vision, the present state will always appear to be far away from the ultimate goal.

Yes, we can be excellent in achieving something. But as long as that achievement exists in the real, concrete world, there will always be some imperfections. It is precisely because the ideal conception of happiness is so abstract, the fine details are stripped off (left out, as it were from the conception of happiness which we have carved in our minds). And because it lacks the fine details, it will always appear perfect, pure, unadulterated, and of course, infinitely better each and every single time we compare our present state with it.

And so, no matter how much one tries to chase after happiness, the comparison of the present state with the ideal is inevitable. And the more one dwells upon it, the more one thinks one is unhappy.

Happiness begins when we stop asking such questions, and start realising just how happy we already are – right here, right now. It is possible to be happy right here, right now! In fact, we may not realise it, but we are already be happy (even though it doesn’t necessarily correspond to the abstract ideal of happiness in our minds).

I might currently possess some negative feelings, such as sadness or loneliness, but that doesn’t mean that it mutually excludes happiness. It doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive.

And when we begin to realise just how happy we are in our present state, we begin to discover that the question, “Am I happy?” or “What must I do to be happy?”, are simply irrelevant questions – traps that we set for ourselves to make us depressed.

Happiness is now.

And since that realisation, I’ve been significantly happier than before.