When I finished university 2 years ago, I decided I didn’t want to get a ‘real job’. I wanted to create a social enterprise to share yoga as a tool for students and young people to deal with the rising problem of mental health, and set myself on the task to build an organisation. 10 weeks in to the project I was struck by an existential realisation. I had weathered three years of intermittent anxiety and depression, and yoga helped me more than you could know, but I still had so much to learn before guiding others on their own journey. It was then I decided to take a step back and relaxed into enjoying the practice for my own personal self discovery and growth.
Over the past 18 months, as I have been reflecting on the direction I want my life to take, a fair amount of my enquiry has been exploring the foundations of what actually makes us happy. Meaning and purpose being a key component, it makes sense to think about what is important. But recently, I read an article which again put to question the idea of happiness itself, and made me wonder if the search for happiness might actually be a paradoxical pursuit.
When I was talking to a friend about this, we admitted if you have to ask yourself if you’re happy, you’re probably still looking to fill at least one of the boxes on the happiness check list. The reason this article challenged me though, is because it described how happiness became a cultural obsession with the decline of religious belief and the rise of economic prosperity. For me, the capitalist bubble we have inflated around ourselves definitely begs the question of what really matters in light of infinite possibilities to create a ‘flourishing’ life.
The modern concept around happiness is about feeling good, as opposed to a more old fashioned belief in being good. Aristotle argued that happiness is an evaluation of a life lived well, resulting not from the intangible measures of a life’s quality but from living a life of virtue, epitomised by characteristics such as humility and devotion, strength and courage, honesty and integrity. In contrast, today’s world seems confused by the notion of happiness as if it is somehow a measure on our success when the pertinence of financial rewards is constantly being put in to question.
But the real reason this modern concept of feeling good is imbued with potential paradox is two fold. Firstly, if happiness is a feeling then its acquisition would be impossible to sustain. Feelings are conscious emotions that arise through our mental reaction to life events. Because life is changing all the time, these feelings come and go, and in this sense, happiness isn’t something we could restrain any more than we would want to release our sadness. But the desire to be happy is a very real phenomenon. The second paradox follows then that it it this very attachment to wanting to be happy all the time that counteracts the kind of happiness that arises when we put our selfish desires to bed.
It’s not wrong to want to be happy, of course, but if you think that’s what you’re searching for, make sure its clear what that means to you. At this time in my life as I try to find my way, there is always the fear that if I don’t plan out and engineer my life to bear the greatest fruit, it might not taste as sweet as it could. Yet, that fear alone is the very seed that negates from experiencing the beauty of this moment in its wholeness now. So maybe I should stop trying to figure it all out. Maybe my life isn’t so important that it really matters what I do. Maybe we weren’t put on this Earth for anything but love. Because life, “it was a musical thing and we were supposed to sing.”
Oh, and if you want to read the article I mentioned, follow this link.