As the festive and allegedly soulful season approaches, I want to take some pressure off of you. Happiness shouldn’t be your goal, nor is it the point of life. In fact, dwelling on it will only make you and others miserable. So don’t worry about it.
The Western tradition wasn’t always fixated on happiness. Aristotle, for one, set off in a more mature direction, by contemplating the “good life” more broadly and the role in it of eudaimonia. Regularly mistranslated as “happiness,” that word in fact means “good spirit.”
What Aristotle had in mind had nothing to do with smiley faces, and lots to do with what we would call flourishing. Basically, he viewed the good life as fulfilling your purpose, whatever that may be. If you’re a knife, you cut; if you’re Aristotle, you think; if you’re me, you write and parent.
Another way of thinking about purpose might be duty. Aeneas, as Virgil described the Trojan hero, was rarely happy and often wretched. But he was “pius” — meaning dutiful; the connotation “pious” came much later — and therefore lived well.
There’s absolutely no need to make this notion either complicated or epic. Ralph Waldo Emerson brought Aristotle right down to earth: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference.”
Of course, people who strive to live an Aristotelian life also pause occasionally to ponder where they are on their paths, just as seasoned travelers like to look back on their peregrinations. And then, for fleeting moments, they may feel an uplifting sensation that maybe all of this was, if not always fun, at least worthwhile. Go ahead and call that happiness. But recognize that it’s retroactive, and will be gone again in a jiffy.
That’s because these sporadic warm and fuzzy, or bright and bubbly, feelings usually evaporate as soon as people turn back to the present moment — the famous “Now” of New Age lore. In that here and now, most of us can’t help but notice that life frequently just sucks.
For many people, life offers up a diet of pain, poverty, disease or hunger. And even when the menu features ease, wealth, health and cornucopia, people are still stuck with their own minds. And oh how the human psyche knows to torture. Its tricks range from anxiety to depression, anger, envy and all the rest.
The Athenian philosophers coming just after Aristotle understood this and therefore tried to refine notions about the good life. The results were Stoicism, Epicureanism, Skepticism and Cynicism — in their original, not their modern, senses, mind you. But the Hellenistic thinkers too weren’t really aiming at happiness as such. Their goal was instead equanimity.
The world champions of thinking about the mind and equanimity were the Buddhists. The first of their four noble truths states that life is duhkha. This is usually translated as “suffering” but means something closer to unease or discomfort. According to yoga scholar T.K.V. Desikachar, the etymology ultimately comes from the Sanskrit for “dark chamber.”
Basically, Buddhism recognizes that our natural state resembles being in a dark space, something like the opposite of happiness. The blame for that, again, belongs to the mind. Even if we’re momentarily happy, for example, we’ll be unhappy as soon as that high is gone. And then we’ll forever crave another hit of happiness, like junkies needing their next fix.
The rest of Buddhism basically elaborates how — sort of, maybe, possibly — we can get ourselves “at ease” again. That involves observing the mind doing its stuff — by watching, but not judging, our thoughts. One thing meditators eventually notice is that bad emotions enter the mind but also leave it again just as easily. So Buddhists practice politely seeing their inner nasties to the door and letting them go.
If all goes well, a person can eventually climb out of the dark chamber into a permanently lit place. But that’s rare. And the Sanskrit words for that experience don’t exactly translate to happiness either. Instead they have meanings like liberation, release, emptiness, or even “being blown out” (nirvana) like an extinguished candle. Enlightenment, in short, is quite a different idea in East and West. As an unalienable Jeffersonian right, the pursuit of being blown out doesn’t cut it.
Having forgotten the legacy of the ancient Greeks and at best dabbled in Eastern thought, we in the West therefore went in a different direction. Sometimes we equate happiness with the bouncy optimism of Pollyanna, the title character in an American novel from 1913. More generally, it implies cheer and joy no matter what’s going on. As that most annoying of songs puts it: Don’t Worry, Be Happy.
The psychology behind such Hallmark-Card happiness falls somewhere between denial, escapism and self-deception. At one extreme, putting on a happy face when your situation objectively leaves much to be desired might make you stop or delay planning, saving, getting an education, sobering up or getting fit, thereby pre-programming future misery.
The modern happiness cult has other pernicious side effects. It leads to what some authors call a “Happycracy” or “Toxic Positivity.” That’s when the onus of not just pursuing but actually catching up with happiness falls on the individual person. If you’re not happy, you must be doing something wrong. It’s your fault.
That’s a lot of pressure, and causes a lot of guilt — moving you even further away from happiness. Often, it’s also downright, if inadvertently, cruel. The author Whitney Goodman, a psychotherapist, lists some particularly common and inappropriate positivity reflexes when we encounter grief: “You’ll be fine.” “Just smile.” “You have so much to be grateful for.” “Time heals all wounds.” “Be grateful for what you learned.” “It could be worse.”
Spouting cliches such as these borders on sadistic if you’re with somebody who just lost a job, got divorced, had a cancer diagnosis, suffered a miscarriage, got bombed out of Mariupol — or indeed somebody who simply feels lonely and down. The better response to somebody who’s unhappy — in the mirror or across the table — is to validate the pain, making it legitimate.
But we shouldn’t overshoot in the other direction either, by dwelling on the bad that may or may not be yet to come. Unsurprisingly, our foes are once again our own minds. The problem is that in imagining future outcomes, human cognition has evolved a “negativity bias”: For purposes of survival in the ancestral savannas, it was better to assume the worst, whereas natural selection never cared a whit about anybody’s happiness.
That heritage makes us prone to what psychologists call “catastrophizing.” It’s the recurring temptation, especially late at night or when we can’t sleep, to worry about the worst that could happen, rather than picturing more likely scenarios. This can lead to unwarranted and excessive anxiety.
Here’s the advice I’ll try to follow, and not just during the upcoming holidays. First, ignore silly “happiness indices” and other claptrap. Second, strange as it sounds, don’t feel bad if you’re not happy. Third, remember that, like Aeneas, you have more important things to do in this world, so stay focused on those. And fourth, keep watching your own mind, lest it gallop off too wildly in the wrong directions.
I’ll admit the possibility of one other secret weapon: a macabre sense of humor. “Much will be gained,” as Sigmund Freud allegedly put it, “if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness.” On that note, Happy Holidays.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist, he is author of “Hannibal and Me.”
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion