“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
–Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence
In the United States, it seems that the pursuit of happiness has become a national pastime. We read books about how to achieve happiness, acquire material possessions that are supposed to provide us with happiness, pursue relationships that will make us happy, and engage in all sorts of pleasurable activities in a bid to achieve happiness. We do this because we believe that happiness (or at least the pursuit thereof) is our birthright and spend our lives in the pursuit of this seemingly elusive goal with the belief that the achievement of happiness is life’s ultimate purpose.
In this article, I will be discussing what happiness is and what it isn’t, why we are not happy in general, and whether or not “being happy” is an accomplishment that is actually possible to achieve.
Is it all Relative?
“There are two things in life that are the cause of all unhappiness: not getting what you want, and getting what you want.”
Imagine a man named Jim who works hard for a company, and one day after several years he gets a big promotion. He feels extremely happy. He can finally buy the car he wants, and can afford to go on the vacation he has been dreaming of for a long time. Two weeks later he finds out that a coworker of his, who is a low performer but is a friend of the boss, is making significantly more money than he is. All of a sudden, Jim is crushed. How can life be so unfair? Why aren’t I being paid at least as much, if not more? -Jim wonders. Now Jim is unhappy and starts looking for a new job that will pay him what he “deserves”.
From this example, one might conclude that happiness is relative. I.e., that Jim could have remained happy if he had simply not compared his salary with another employee. But in reality, our fluctuating external situation often masks the real issue, which is that being happy is not a permanent state, regardless of what you do or what you have.
“Being” happy vs. Happiness
Part of the confusion around happiness in general is that it isn’t clear what we mean by the word; this may be due in part to how we talk about happiness in the English language. For instance, we don’t say that we “feel” happy; rather we say that we “are” happy. In some other languages, there is a definite distinction between what we are feeling in the moment versus permanent character traits such as height, weight and skin color. But in English, we say “I am happy” or “I am hungry” in the same way we describe ourselves as “I am tall” or “I am smart”. And while we understand that “I am angry” is referring to an emotional state at that moment, we tend to assume that a person who says “I am happy” indicates that she is relatively happy in general.
In the first half of the 20th century, a man by the name of Edward Barnays revolutionized the way that products were being marketed. Barnays, who incidentally was the nephew of the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, became fascinated with the idea of using human psychology for marketing purposes. Until this time, a product would commonly have been marketed by displaying the product and a description. What Barnays discovered was that if you connected a desired emotion to the product you wanted consumers to purchase, people would buy the product in an attempt to feel the emotion that had been attached to it.
Consider the slogan “share a Coke and a smile”. Or the image of young, attractive men and women at a lively party which is used to sell alcohol. Or the TV commercial of a lady who orgasms to sell website domains. If we look at the wider picture, what this marketing strategy is doing is attempting to sell people happiness, with the product or service marketed as being the “ticket to happiness”.
Overall, this seems like a shallow and somewhat deceptive manner in which to market products and services. However, this strategy has worked so well that companies continue to utilize it to this day. Note that if the products being offered actually did produce long-term happiness, this advertising strategy would sooner or later stop working. But the reason it continues to be a successful strategy decades later is that – as an emotion – happiness is always temporary. People who fail to recognize this will easily fall into the trap of believing that their happiness is simply hindered by a lack of having one more thing, or doing one more thing. “If only I had that car, that marriage, that house, that vacation, that trip to Europe”. And the “if only” continues indefinitely until the day the person dies.
It is therefore worth noting that it is not the lack of things or experiences that prevent us from being happy; it is our DESIRE for those things that keeps us discontent. Desire puts our conscious awareness into the future time: we are always thinking about what we want to have at a future moment. But if our consciousness is in the future, we can never appreciate what we have in the present. So if we habitually want things in general, we will never be able to appreciate them when they are finally acquired.
In reality, we simply do not have complete control of events external to ourselves, including what we have, how much money we make, who we are with in a relationship, etc. So as long as we base our happiness on external factors, we will experience moments of feeling happy, but we will never come to a stage in life where we will always be at peace with what comes our way.
Therefore, the goal of happiness is not about trying to always feel happy. Rather what we really long for is to have a sense of inner peace regardless of the external situation. The answer then is to turn inward; to find a way that we can be content internally, no matter the outward situation. And the way that this is done is by learning to change how we handle our thoughts and our emotions. Why this is and how it is accomplished is discussed next.
The Cause of Stress
Stress is a constant factor in almost everyone’s life. And while we often feel it, we rarely understand the true source. We might believe that it is our job that is stressing us out, or our financial situation, or a crazy soccer game schedule. But underneath these superficial causes, the actual cause of stress is all due to the exact same thing: our desire for something to be different than the way that it actually is.
Another way of saying it: stress is not caused by an external situation, it is caused by how we think about the external situation. Let’s take a look at a few examples of stressful thoughts: I should finish this project by the end of the day. I should be a nicer person. I shouldn’t get upset with my husband all the time. My spouse should make more money. My mother should be more understanding. People should mind their own business.
Notice the word “should”. This is a key that we desire the situation to be different from what it is. Really pay attention to your thoughts and you may find that you use this word (or an equivalent) constantly. Each time we think this way, we are not accepting people and situations as they are, but instead wishing that they were different. We don’t want to accept our children as they are, but instead force them to be a certain way so we can be proud of them. We won’t love our spouses if they don’t change to be as loving or supportive as we think they should be. And we won’t like our jobs if they aren’t as interesting as we demand them to be. Each “should” is wishing for life to be different than what it is, and the more we wish for things to be different, the more anxiety and stress we heap upon ourselves.
Thoughts vs. Reality
Imagine an older man who is living next to a family with young children. Every day, the children play noisily outside, which really bothers this man. He regularly complains to their mother, explaining that the children are too loud and should not make so much noise. After a few months, the man moves to a new house in a quiet neighborhood where he can now enjoy some peace and quiet. But not long after, the old man starts to feel lonely, at which point he realizes that he misses the sounds of the children playing.
What the old man discovers is that it wasn’t the noise of the children that was the issue, it was simply his opinion that the children were too noisy that was upsetting him. Let’s consider a few more examples: A lady who switches jobs because her previous one was “too stressful” discovers that her new job is “not interesting enough”. A mother who is tired of picking up after her teenage son finds out she misses doing this for him when he moves out of the house. A spouse who thinks her husband wasn’t making enough money later feels bitter when her husband gets a big promotion and starts working long hours, leaving her alone. A woman who is devastated when her husband leaves her – and thinks that he should not have left her – later becomes grateful the marriage ended once she enters a new and happier relationship.
As we can see from these examples, it was the thoughts about the situation that were the actual source of painful or stressful feelings. Another thing worth noting is that for every stressful thought, there is an opposite thought. “My job should be less stressful” contrasts with “my job shouldn’t be less stressful”, or “my husband shouldn’t have left me” versus “my husband should have left me”. In reality, neither thought is more “valid” than the other: both of these thoughts are simply that: thoughts. They are not reality, they are simply words that are formed inside of one’s head. Furthermore, we have complete freedom to decide which thoughts are “true” (i.e. which thoughts we want to believe) and which are not true. But the only thing that is actually “true” is the reality of the situation.
For example, if your job is stressful, or if your spouse leaves you: that is reality. But you have complete freedom over whether to accept reality (i.e., that your job is stressful or that your spouse left you) or choose to believe thoughts that don’t correspond with reality. And when you choose to believe thoughts that don’t correspond to reality, you become dissatisfied and unhappy.
Changing our Thinking
The first step on the path to a happier life is to learn how to stop giving our thoughts so much power. If we can examine our thoughts and realize that they are just thoughts, they will have less control over us. Unexamined thoughts lead to desire, but paying attention to and investigating our thoughts will pave the way for understanding that they – and not our external circumstances – are what are actually causing us grief.
Once we have learned to stop giving our thoughts power over us, we will stop desiring life to be different than what it is and instead we can start to live more and more in the present moment. And we will live with ever decreasing amounts of stress. But it would be naïve to believe that living in the present moment without stress means we will now always be happy.
The Importance of negative emotions
We live in a world of opposites, where one opposite cannot exist without the other. And this is true for emotions as well. In order to feel happy, we must also allow ourselves to feel pain; we cannot experience one without the capacity to feel the other. Think about this for a moment. We don’t want to feel sad or angry or fearful, but when we suppress these negatives emotions, it limits our ability to feel the positive emotions as well. So just to be clear: to the extent that we allow ourselves to feel sad is the extent to which we are able to feel happy. But somewhere in the process of growing up, we came to believe that having negative emotions is wrong, or at least not desirable. And this is something we need to understand and overcome.
Generally speaking, we have a habit of judging ourselves for our negative emotions because we think we shouldn’t have them. I.e., we think that feeling angry or sad or jealous means that we are “bad” people. Therefore, we desire to be happy and excited, and try to avoid feeling frustrated, stressed, and angry.
When we were children, we cried when we were sad, yelled when we got mad, and laughed when we were happy. But later we came to believe that it was “not right” to feel certain ways. For example: imagine a young girl in a restaurant who is reprimanded by a parent for throwing a tantrum. Or a young boy who is scolded by his father for crying. As children aren’t able to separate the action from the emotion, such experiences will cause the girl to believe that being angry is wrong, and the boy will start believing that it is shameful to feel sad.
Feeling guilty about negative emotions causes us to desire experiencing positive emotions while trying to minimize – or simply refusing to experience – our negative emotions. As I have already mentioned, desire of anything forces us out of the present moment and into the future (where it is impossible to appreciate anything). And to the extent that we suppress our negative emotions is the extent to which we will be unable to feel our positive emotions.
Connecting with our emotions
Many people are afraid of experiencing negative emotions because they still believe that negative emotions are tied to negative actions. In other words, people are afraid to feel anger because they think this will lead them to angry behavior, such as explosive and abusive tirades, or possibly physical violence.
But the reality is that the more that we suppress our emotions, the less actual control we have over our actions when those emotions come out uncontrollably. Alternatively, to the extent that we acknowledge and allow our negative emotions to be felt is the extent to which we have control over our actions when expressing those emotions. Suppressed emotions lead to explosions of those emotions. But by allowing ourselves to feel negative emotions without judgement, we have control over our actions while we are feeling those emotions.
Reclaiming our negative emotions
As experiencing negative emotions is important for emotional well-being, we don’t want to desire positive emotions and suppress negative emotions any more than we need to desire negative emotions and suppress positive ones. Instead, both positive and negative emotions should be fully experienced without trying to manipulate them in any way. This usually is not a problem for positive emotions, but most people run into trouble with correctly processing the negative ones.
The strategy to dealing with negative emotions is the same as stressful thoughts: we want to investigate them as they appear. Let’s look at an example, using the scenario of a child that does something which habitually causes his mother to become angry.
First, here is the normal reaction, which is often expressed verbally: “Oh I hate it when you do that! You are always making me so angry!” Notice that the very fact that she is blaming her child for “causing” her anger is an indication that she does not think it is “good” to experience anger.
Now let’s look at a healthy reaction, which is investigated via an internal thought process: “Wow, I just felt so angry when Charlie did that! I wonder why I have such a reaction. Perhaps I have the belief that my little child should always be perfect. But he is a child, and I cannot expect him to be perfect. And if I am always angry at him, he may start to believe that I don’t love him, or that I only love him when he does what I want him to do. Is that really what I want to teach my child? Is it possible for me to accept the fact that he is not perfect, and show my disapproval of his actions in a more loving manner?”
Because the experience of anger was treated with curiosity rather than contempt, there was no need to look for someone or something to blame. And by investigating the situation truthfully, this mother was able to find a false belief inside of herself that was causing her to be upset with her son. She was then able to question the belief, and as a result she is now less likely to become angry the next time his behavior is repeated.
The Final Step
So far this article has provided two useful tools that can help us learn to be at peace regardless of the situation. The first is to investigate our thoughts in order to realize that they are just thoughts, and that not believing them will reduce the stress in our lives. The second is to allow and examine our experiences of negative emotions with curiosity instead of contempt. Neither one of these is an easy task, and both will take a significant amount of time to master. That said, there is still another step on our journey towards inner peace that must be mastered, and this undertaking is possibly the hardest one of all. The task: to know and accept who we truly are instead of hiding behind an image of who we wish we were.
The Mask Self and Lower Self
“Know thyself” –Ancient Proverb
Everyone has an ego which, by its very nature, is selfish. As selfishness is not a good way to make friends, we all hide behind “false” images of ourselves. A person who is “fake” is someone who is not good at hiding his selfish ego (aka “lower self”), but most of us do it quite well. However, it simply isn’t possible to contain the lower self 100% of the time. The expression “the honeymoon is over” is another way of saying that a couple has stopped hiding their lower selves from each other now that they have been in a relationship for a while.
Our lower selves are not only hidden from others; we have hidden them from ourselves as well. I.e., the actions of our fake selves (aka “mask selves”) have become so habitual that we rarely realize that we are living as our mask selves. The third task on our journey therefore starts with uncovering the true nature of our lower selves.
To aid us on the path of self-discovery, there are a couple of strategies that can help us uncover and explore our lower selves. They are (1) intention and (2) relationships.
As you go about your daily life, continuously question your motives behind every action that you make. In particular, you are looking for any hidden motives that you normally would not admit to having. For example:
- Did you laugh at Sally’s joke because it was funny or simply because everyone else was laughing and you didn’t want people to think you were the only one who didn’t get the joke?
- Did you post those photos on Facebook because you truly wanted to share what you were doing with friends, or because you wanted your friends to think you were having fun?
- Are you being nice to your neighbor because you were inspired to do something nice, or was it because you needed a favor?
- Did you agree to help out at school because you wanted to, or because you didn’t want people to complain about you behind your back?
The main thing is to be as honest as you can about your motives. Note that whenever you have a hidden motive, you are hiding behind your mask self. But by identifying the hidden motive, you can come closer to understanding the true nature of your lower self.
The second way to explore our lower selves is to use our relationships. Note that while we are generally blind to our own faults, we can easily find the faults in other people. At this point we need to understand a concept that might be difficult to accept (but is well worth the effort of accepting): that any fault that we judge others for is a fault that we are unwilling to admit is present in ourselves. For example, if we are constantly annoyed at our spouses for being insensitive, this suggests that deep down we are hiding our own insensitive nature behind our mask selves (and are unwilling to admit this).
Once we understand this concept, we have an incredible tool for exploring our lower selves. Anytime that we have a negative emotional reaction to the actions of another person, whether it is a friend, family, or stranger, simply take some time to explore why you think that this reaction occurred. More specifically, try to pinpoint what it was in the other person that made you react negatively, and then check inside to see if you can find the same fault inside of yourself. The fault may resonate with you or it may not; either way continue to explore yourself.
Transforming our lower selves
As we are exploring our lower selves, we must keep two things in mind: it is necessary to be completely honest about ourselves, and we must refrain from self-judgement at all costs. If we are not honest, we will never be able to look behind the mask selves we have created. And if we judge ourselves, we can never be completely honest about the true nature of our lower selves. At the same time, we need to keep in mind that the extent to which we can acknowledge and uncover the nature of our lower selves is the extent to which we will be able to transform ourselves into the type of person that we wish we were.
While we are exploring the lower self, we need to be aware that we have another aspect of ourselves in addition to the lower self and mask self. This aspect is known as the “higher self”.
While the lower self is a part of our human experience, the higher self is the part of us that transcends the human experience and connects us with everything else in existence. The higher self is all-loving and unselfish, and it is the nature of the higher self that we as humans wish we were, but are not due to the presence of our lower selves. Additionally: though we may not ever be able to fully transform ourselves into being completely loving and unselfish beings, we do need to understand the strategy for moving ourselves in that direction. We cannot transform ourselves through will, we must do it through surrender.
We need to be clear that the higher self is our true eternal nature, but is (temporarily) hidden beneath the layer of the lower self. Therefore, to get to the higher self, we don’t try to force ourselves to be more like the higher self because this is in fact who we are already. Instead, we consciously ask the higher self to transform the lower self and for the higher self to connect more deeply to our conscious selves. Put another way: we ask the higher self to dissolve the ego self (make it less solid and more transparent) so that the true nature of the higher self can shine through. And we do it by making this request of the higher self, and then simply waiting for and allowing this to happen. The request can be made via meditation, prayer, or any equivalent silent contemplation. But we must first be able to honestly see the true nature of our lower selves and accept our lower selves as an aspect of who we are; only after we have done this can we ask for our lower selves to be transformed.
As we continue along the journey toward happiness and inner peace, we will begin to find that our lives are changing in wonderful and possibly unexpected ways.
With the realization that external circumstances and material possessions cannot bring happiness, we begin to cease our desire to have what we think we lack, which will lead us to a greater appreciation of what we already have.
As we cease our desire for situations to be different from what they actually are, we start to unburden our lives of stress and can now feel more alive and at peace in the present moment.
By allowing the positive and negative emotions to flow through us with understanding and acceptance, we can also let external positive and negative situations flow through our lives with acceptance and peace.
By truly seeing ourselves as we actually are, we are then able to see others as they truly are and thus able to make more genuine and deeper connections with others.
As we are able to truly accept and love who we actually are, we are able to truly accept and love life, just as life is, moment by moment.
And as we are able to honestly see the negative aspects and faults in ourselves, we are now in the position to allow our higher selves to transform us into the loving and selfless beings who we desire to be, and who we truly are.
The fine print
“The price you pay by going on this path of development is a high one, but there is absolutely no other means on earth or in heaven to gain harmony, love, happiness, and complete inner security. What you will receive for the price is a hundred times worth it…”
I would love to end the article now, but there is one vitally important point to cover about happiness that is almost universally ignored; however it must be acknowledged in order to have an honest discussion about happiness. And that point is: the vast majority of people will (and do) die without ever experiencing true happiness. I am not saying this to sound negative or as a warning, I am saying it because it’s important to know the challenge that we are up against: happiness does not come quickly nor does it come easily. For everything there is a price to pay, and the same is true for emotional well-being.
At times the price might even seem too high; i.e. that it is “not worth it”. I personally have an entry in my journal that warns myself that no matter what happens, I had better not believe that any future result was worth the pain that I was experiencing at that moment. So it is worth noting that there will be times in life – during our darkest moments – when our perspectives are limited and we will not be able to appreciate the necessity of experiencing such pain, nor believe that any positive outcomes could make up for the pain we are going through.
However, if we look think more clearly about happiness in general, we must eventually come to realize that becoming happy is not a pastime: on the contrary, every single thing we do in life is a result of us trying to become happy. So no matter the pain that we must trudge through to get to our end goal, it is worth noting that any positive result will be well worth the effort.
And once we have made a clear determination to set out along the path – in a manner that will lead to true and inner peace and happiness – we have to be not only dedicated, but also patient. It is unrealistic to believe that we will achieve the desired results immediately; on the contrary: even when we are diligently and honestly seeking the truth about ourselves, it is likely that significant positive results will not appear for a period of several months, if not more. In the meantime, the unpleasantness of what we are dealing with is likely to make life temporarily more difficult, not easier.
Regardless of this fact, all of us human beings are on a quest to obtain the exact same thing. We may not know how to get it, and we may fool ourselves into thinking there is an easier way. And for those that summon up the personal courage to take the journey deep inside of our own selves, the rewards are waiting, and they are great indeed.
- The Century of Self, Parts 1 & 2 (video documentary). Directed by Adam Curtis. Produced by RDF Television & BBC. Originally broadcast March 2002.
- Byron Katie. Loving what Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life. Three Rivers Press. 2003.
- Eva Pierrakos & Donovan Thesenga. Fear No Evil: The Pathwork Method of Transforming the Lower Self, Revised Ed. Pathwork Press. 2007.
- Eva Pierrakos & Judith Saly. Creating Union: The Essence of Intimate Relationship. 2nd Ed. Pathwork Press. 2002.