Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

American Declaration of Independence

If there is one aspiration to unite all of humans, then surely it is the pursuit of happiness. It’s even in the American Declaration of Independence. Should it be? Should we all aspire to be happy?

Let me guess what you’re thinking. How can someone be against happiness? Of course I’m not. I’ve spent my whole life wanting it too and have found too much disappointment, depression, ill health, stress, and more.

The happiness paradox is the idea that if someone pursues happiness they will only find unhappiness. If happiness is fought for then it is pushed further away. Instead we should make good decisions in our lives, find meaning, and then happiness could find us. 

My argument in this essay is that we should better define happiness. We should also change our thinking as to how happiness happens and how we can get it to happen to us.

What is the happiness paradox?

As outlined briefly above, the happiness paradox is the idea that if we pursue happiness we will not find it. It’s a paradox because we assume that if we search for something then the search should not make it unattainable, yet it kind of does.

My first thought to explain the idea was Heath Ledger’s Joker in Batman the Dark Knight, where he tells Batman that he doesn’t want power because he does not know what to do with it. Yet, it’s more than that because we probably do know what to do with happiness.

The Joker sought to create chaos and through it accrued some kind of power. And this touches on the idea of the happiness paradox because in order to find happiness, we need to not look for it, but to work on other areas of our lives instead.

What is happiness?

Before we continue, let’s take a quick detour to define our terms – what is happiness? Formal descriptions of this word do not do it justice. They can seem dry and academic. 

Happiness is different to all people, it’s very individual, but is a warm and fuzzy feeling of contentment, of feeling good in the world whether it’s through your actions, your lifestyle, or the place and people around you, things fit, and you feel good – you smile and feel well. 

We may also say that there is no drive to fill wants and needs, and no feeling of coveting what others have. Your basic needs for food, purpose, a roof over your head, family, love, and friendship are met. That being said, a person may find happiness without these things.

The happiness paradox comes from Watt’s Backwards Law

Alan Watts thought deeply about the idea of this kind of paradox – the kind where the goal is gained by not seeking the goal. He termed this “backwards law” and used it to look at the psychology and philosophy of want in relation to feelings. 

His theory is that pursuing what you want only reinforces what you lack. Therefore in wanting to feel happy you concentrate too much on your current unhappiness. In focusing on lack and unhappiness you become unhappy.

It’s a simple premise and a good one. The evil twin to this might be covetousness. In the age of social media and envy-driven socialism, people see what others have and want it too. Yet in doing so they only highlight to themselves what they lack.

How can we set our lives to invite happiness?

The natural question we ask ourselves is this – if striving for happiness will push happiness further away and could make us unhappy, then how do we invite happiness into our lives?

This could be rephrased as the art of not pursuing what you want to pursue. Viktor Frankl has a good quote on this, though he is talking about success, it is also applicable to happiness:

Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it” – Viktor Fankl, Man’s Search for Meaning.

Do not strive for happiness

A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”

Lao Tzu

Happiness happens and it cannot be bought or taken or striven for. Follow the words of Frankl and Lao Tzu, where west and east meet in common philosophy – do not plan for happiness and have no intention of striving for it.

Instead relax and build solid foundations in your life. Construct the world around you based on what is right and what is good. The rest of this article is going to go into how to do this. I’d like to say that I’m on the path with you here – I’m learning as I stare turning 40 down the barrel to live a better life and to build something better. 

I feel like I’ve wasted my life chasing ghosts up until now – sure I’ve had experiences and adventures, and I’ve achieved some cool life goals,  but it’s been largely empty. Now I’d like to do things right, build something solid, take ownership of my life and leadership too. 

How appreciation can generate happiness

When trying to write the basics of my own philosophy (Way of the Runari), the first thing which sprung to mind was appreciation. It was not inspired by appreciating life and people I’m sad to admit, but came out of art and of beauty.

In his book, Lost Japan, Alex Kerr talks about the Japanese literati (I choose Runari as an English word for literati) and how they fiercely love and appreciate Japanese arts. This ranges from kimono to sushi, from pottery to architecture. 

My thoughts on appreciation grew from there. Living in a beautiful world is not some Foucault power trip, it is inspiring. We should appreciate the good views, the nature, the art, the grand buildings, music, and more. And we should appreciate people, small things they do, the little charms of the world – squirrels running up trees, dragonflies moving out of the way so you can walk by them.

Slow down – gratitude  (appreciation)

So the first step of inviting happiness into your life by not pursuing it is to be grateful. No matter how bad things seem, step back and think of the positives in your life. They may seem hard to find, but you are breathing and that’s something to be grateful for.

Write a list of the positives in your life, these can include:

  • Good things around you
  • Your positive qualities
  • Things you’ve achieved no matter how silly they may seem (my first such list included winning 4 straight Champions leagues with Aston Villa on Football Manager).
  • Good people
  • Good food
  • Things that inspire you
  • Positives about your location
  • Your skills
  • Positive interactions and experiences

Keep focusing on what you have and your positives. They are key to your happiness, but there is more because we cannot ignore the negatives.

Let go of negatives – embrace patience

The second stage of inviting happiness into your life is to accept where you are and to let go of negatives. This also includes embracing patience. Life does not change with the click of the fingers, even if you win the lotto, so understand that inviting happiness is a slow, long-term project with many bumps in the road.

In letting negatives affect us we push happiness away. Our brains are natural problem solvers, which is why we often hold on to negative experiences – we want to learn from them and know how to solve them or do better next time. Yet we must be patient with them too.

Holding onto negative thoughts can create negative reinforcement. The long-term effects of this is to weaken not just our feelings and sense of self-worth, but to also reduce our overall health, ambition, and ability to progress in our careers or social lives.

So take a deep breath when faced with an adverse experience or result. Stay calm and embrace the reality. It happened. Don’t go crazy or get too angry or cry over it. Accept that it happened and do not let it go too deep into you. Let yourself move on quickly. The stoic philosopher Seneca, in one of his letters, believed we should do this even when a loved one dies.

You require patience because happiness is a long-term thing. It is not always there, but can be. It can come anytime in a fleeting moment or it can reside a while. Don’t chase it – embrace it.

Accept responsibility into your life

“’Happiness’ is a pointless goal. Don’t compare yourself with other people, compare yourself with who you were yesterday. No one gets away with anything, ever, so take responsibility for your own life.

“You conjure your own world, not only metaphorically but also literally and neurologically. These lessons are what the great stories and myths have been telling us since civilisation began.”

Dr. Jordan B. Peterson

From 2017 onwards, Canadian psychologist, Dr. Jordan B. Peterson has exploded across the world as someone helping people, predominantly young men, find meaning in their lives. He did this in a brutally honest manner which we found refreshing and invigorating.

Like the thousands of people who have personally told Dr. Peterson how much he’s helped them, I too have been helped. It began with his lectures, then his interviews, and then his 2018 book, 12 Rules for Life which contains such basic things yet things I’d never been told before.

One of the keys to a happy, content life, according to Dr. Peterson is accepting responsibility into your life. This chimed with my philosophy, which I developed before hearing of him, which stated that we are free people and are free to do to ourselves whatever we want, but with that freedom comes a responsibility for our own actions.

Peterson is advocating for this, but also a second kind of responsibility. That is to take on responsibilities for others – this could be for people or for animals or for things. We grow when we have something to develop or someone to care for, or people to help, or a project to complete. It is the lack of these constructive preoccupations which can lead to degeneration and the wasting of potential.

In conclusion

I’m on my own path. Maybe it’ll lead to happiness. Maybe not. I certainly hope that it does, but will not be striving for it anymore. My plan is to build good things, to appreciate the positives, and to be patient with the negatives. Let’s see where it leads.

I’ll finish up with a quick summary:

  • If you pursue happiness you will push it away.
  • Focusing on what you lack will invite unhappiness.
  • Coveting what others have creates envy and unhappiness.
  • Do not pursue happiness.
  • Appreciate the good things in your life – there are more than you think!
  • Be patient with the negatives – accept them.
  • Take on responsibilities.