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So, What is Happiness?

This article concentrates on 'happiness' or rather our perception of it. The idea came from watching a video by Gen Kelsang Nyema - ‘Happiness is all in the mind’ - in essence the relevance of being in control of our own happiness rather than relying on outside influences.

The RAT RACERS’ illusion is reaching some future destination that will bring lasting happiness, and not recognising the significance of the journey - A SLAVE TO THE FUTURE

For example Rat Racer ‘Tina’ is unconcerned with the future until she goes to school at age 6, and her career as a rat racer begins. She learns that the purpose of going to school is to get good grades so she can secure a good job/future – not that she should be happy in school and learning can and ought to be fun. She feels stressed and anxious, afraid of performing badly. Looks forward to the end of each class/day; sustained by the thought of up coming holidays when she’ll no longer think about grades and work. By now she is disliking learning/school seeing grades as a measure of success - praised for these successes.

She has learned to internalise the formula of success: sacrifice present enjoyment in order to be happy in the future – no pain, no gain. Rat racers are unable to enjoy what they are doing in their persistent belief that once they reach a certain destination they will be happy. Our culture reinforces this behaviour/belief – we are not rewarded for enjoying the journey itself but for the successful completion of the journey – rewarded for results, not processes; arrivals, not journeys. Upon arriving at our goal we can mistake happiness for the relief we feel (relief is real, but it is not happiness). A person who is relieved of a splitting headache will feel happy that she is free of pain but because this ‘happiness’ was preceded by suffering, the absence of pain is a momentary relief from an essentially negative (and temporary) experience.

The HEDONISTS’ illusion is that ONLY the journey is important, A SLAVE TO THE MOMENT

A HEDONIST focusing only on the present; seeks pleasure and avoids pain, equating pleasure with happiness and effort with pain. He will do things that are potentially detrimental if they afford him immediate gratification. If drugs produce a pleasant experience he takes them; if he finds work difficult he avoids it. Without a long-term purpose, devoid of challenge, life ceases to feel meaningful to us.

The NIHILISTS’ illusion is to give up on both the destination and the journey, disillusioned with life – A SLAVE TO THE PAST

The NIHILISTS’ ILLUSION is the state of being ‘chained to the past’. Resigned to present unhappiness, expectation same sort of life in the future; believing they have no control over their lives.

LASTING HAPPINESS requires that we enjoy the journey on our way to a destination WE DEEM VALUABLE. Happiness is not about making it to the peak of the mountain nor is it about climbing aimlessly around the mountain – IT IS THE EXPERIENCE OF CLIMBING TOWARDS THE PEAK.

Instead of looking at life decisions in terms of “shall I be happy now or in the future?” ie: a job opportunity that will ‘get us where we want to be/set us up’ when we might enjoy another job more; the question is “How can I be happy now and in the future?” While present and future benefit may sometimes conflict - because some situations demand we forego one for the other – it is possible to enjoy both for much of the time. For example, students who really love learning derive present benefit from the pleasure in discovering new ideas and future benefit from the ways in which those ideas will prepare them for their careers. In romantic relationships, some couples enjoy their time together and help each other grow and develop. Those who work at something they love – business, medicine, art – can progress in their career while enjoying the journey.

The expectation of constant happiness is to set ourselves up for failure and disappointment. Not everything we do can provide us with both present and future benefit. It is sometimes worthwhile to forgo present benefit for greater future gain, and in every life some mundane work is unavoidable. Studying for exams, saving for the future or working long hours is often unpleasant but can help us to attain long-term happiness. The key to keep in mind, even as one forgoes some present gain for the sake of larger future gain, is the objective to spend as much time as possible engaged in activities that provide both present and future benefit.

(Reference: ‘Happier’ Tal Ben-Shahar PhD)


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