Is the Pursuit of Happiness Misguided?

The past ten years or so have seen a spate of books and self-help gurus promoting the attainment of permanent happiness. But according to a recent article in Newsweek by Sharon Begley entitled “Happiness: Enough Already,” there has lately been a backlash against the “happiness movement.” New books such as Eric Wilson’s Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy argue that the quest for constant happiness is fundamentally misguided. It makes normal sadness into a pathology, and by demonizing discontent, it robs us of the motivation to become better people and make the world a better place. As a student of A Course in Miracles, a path which aims to bring us permanent happiness, I’ve been pondering the question: How would the Course answer the critics of the pursuit of happiness? My short answer is that I think the Course would actually agree that seeking the kind of “happiness” promoted in most self-help books is misguided, since it is really a pseudo-happiness. However, the Course’s remedy is not to abandon the pursuit of happiness, but to seek and find true happiness.

Begley says that the happiness movement began with two legitimate developments—recent discoveries in brain science, and the “positive psychology” movement that encourages the study of positive mental states rather than just mental illness—but took a wrong turn when it entered pop culture. Based on both Begley’s critique and my own observations while reading it, I see several problems with the kind of “happiness” that tends to be promoted by the happiness movement. (In fairness, I should say that there are some truly good recent books on happiness—for instance, Mattieu Ricard’s Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill.)

First, it seems that all too often, happiness is inappropriately equated with an elevated, high-energy disposition. In Begley’s article, the state of happiness being promoted is described as “enthusiasm,” “jolliness,” “euphoria,” and “being ‘up’ all the time.” However, I think that these states are not necessarily indicators of happiness (though obviously they could be), but instead may be simply expressions of an “upbeat” personality type. And real happiness is not inherently tied to a particular personality type. A naturally bubbly person can actually be quite unhappy under the surface, while a naturally quiet and undemonstrative person can be radiantly happy.

Begley tells an amusing story that I think illustrates this point. Psychologist Ed Diener went to the Parliament of Scotland to extol the virtues of happiness as a goal for the country to pursue, but he says the Scots didn’t take too well to this. “They said too much happiness might not be such a good thing. They like being dour, and didn’t appreciate being told they should be happier.” It seems to me, though, that the Scots’ objection was not so much to happiness per se, but to a definition of happiness as being “up” all the time. They’re quite happy with being dour. (It’s also interesting that a recent study showed that the people of Denmark—who aren’t particularly euphoric or jolly—are the world’s happiest people.)

Second, Begley stresses that the emphasis on being happy all the time denies the normality and value of sadness. (As we’ll see below, the Course has its own version of the normality and value of sadness.) Sorrow is a normal response to painful life events, but clinical depression has been defined so broadly that even a sadness that would normally be quite expected—say, you’re still experiencing heartache three weeks after a long-term relationship broke up—is regarded as a disease that might need to be treated with drugs.

Moreover, Begley says, the emphasis on being happy all the time robs us of a valuable benefit that discontent can provide: the motivation to improve ourselves and our world. In Wilson’s words, melancholy has the potential to create “a turbulence of heart that results in an active questioning of the status quo, a perpetual longing to create new ways of being and seeing.” A recent study has in fact shown that those on the highest end of a self-reported happiness scale are lower on the scales of income, career success, education, and political participation. Diener says, “If you’re totally satisfied with your life and with how things are going in the world, you don’t feel very motivated to work for change.”

Finally, the happiness movement tends to place an inordinate emphasis on attaining happiness not through real change, but instead through an artificial manipulation of mood. Wilson, who tried out many of the recent prescriptions for happiness before turning against the enterprise, tells of some of the things his self-help books urged him to do: put on a smile, take up jogging to boost the endorphins in his brain, watch inspirational movies, and frequently say things like “great!” and “wonderful!” to spike up his enthusiasm. Diener worries that pharmaceutical companies are working on happiness drugs, and says that some entrepreneurs are even promising happiness through “special ozone enemas.” What a shallow version of “happiness”! Wilson, quoting Flaubert, concludes that to be chronically happy one must also be stupid.

Compared to all this, the pursuit of happiness promoted by A Course in Miracles is a completely different animal which is free of all the problems we’ve just discussed. First, in the Course, happiness isn’t equated with an elevated, high-energy disposition. Of course, it could include exuberant expression; the Course’s repeated injunctions to “rejoice” certainly bring that to mind. But in the Course, true happiness is not simply an elevated mood, but a deep, peaceful contentment and sense of well-being that could be expressed in myriad ways, presumably depending on one’s personality type. You could be constantly “up” and animated like Peace Pilgrim (if you’ve ever seen her videos, you know what I mean), but you could just as easily have the quiet, understated happiness of a Thomas Merton.

Second, as I mentioned, the Course actually has its own version of the normality and value of sadness. Now, this statement certainly needs to be qualified. The Course regards total happiness as our natural state, given to us by God. From this standpoint, any kind of sadness is unnatural, a symptom of the disease the Course calls the ego. The idea that sadness has no basis in reality and that perfect happiness is available to us right now is a bedrock teaching of the Course—it even tells us that happiness is our function. However, sadness is certainly “normal” in the sense that it is an inevitable effect of our adherence to our false, separate self: “Depression is an inevitable consequence of separation” (W-pI.41.1:2). Though we try to cover it up—perhaps through some of those techniques Wilson tried—sadness is the default emotional state of life as we know it.

The Course places great value on recognizing the sadness we feel deep inside rather than covering it up in the fog of denial, because this recognition gives us the motivation we need to walk the Course’s path to true happiness. Only when we see just how much pain we’re in will we start to realize that “there must be a better way” (T-2.III.3:6). Only when we see how miserable the ego has made us will we seek the joy of the spirit (see T-4.VI.5). Only when we see that all the roads of the world are sorrowful dead ends will we begin to accept that there is a “real alternative instead” (T-31.IV.6:1). Only when we see just how much suffering the way of the world has wrought will we actively question the status quo, devote ourselves to finding a new way of being and seeing, and take up our function as saviors of the world.

It’s worth noting that even the supreme happiness that the Course says is our true state has room for a kind of compassionate sadness that paradoxically is not incompatible with that happiness. In the Urtext, Jesus says that he “shed many tears” over the “appalling error” of the Holocaust. The Course tells us that even God “weeps at the ‘sacrifice’ of His children who believe they are lost to Him” (T-5.VII.4:5). It’s strange to think that beings in Heaven could be sad; why would they be when they know that all the apparent suffering here is only an illusion? I think this is a loving sorrow akin to the sadness a parent feels when his or her child is suffering. Even in cases where the parent knows full well that the child’s pain is very temporary and ultimately insignificant—say, the child is despondent over losing a toy that the parent knows the child would soon lose interest in anyway—the parent still feels grief for the child. When you love someone, you don’t want her to suffer, even if you know the suffering has no basis in truth.

Finally, and most importantly, the happiness the Course describes does not come from manipulating our mood and wallpapering over our despair with denial, but through a fundamental change in our entire worldview. In the Course, happiness doesn’t come from waving a magic wand and saying “I’m happy!” but rather is the fruit of the diligent and long-term process of following the Course’s mind-training program. Happiness comes from recognizing who we really are as God’s beloved Sons, and fulfilling our earthly function of extending that recognition to the entire world. It comes from realizing that God’s Will for us is perfect happiness, and then sharing that perfect happiness with everyone we meet. It is not a consequence of pumping ourselves up with enthusiastic words and plastic smiles, but is rather, as Begley puts it, “a consequence of a meaningful life.”

Let us, then, not give up the pursuit of happiness. Let us instead give up the misguided pursuit of artificial happiness and devote ourselves to seeking and finding the true happiness that is our eternal inheritance from God.

Source of material commented on: Happiness: Enough Already

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
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