Saturday, May 31, 2014

Happiness isn't all it's cracked up to be?

It seems like everyone these days just wants to be happy. Pharrell's singing about it, there's endless self help books about it, all the lifestyle magazines are selling it. But what is happiness anyway? And is it all it's cracked up to be? Read on for ten magic steps to find happiness!! (Actually I don't have ten steps, sorry to disappoint some of you so early, but please bear with me and read on anyway).

In my somewhat faded Concise Oxford dictionary, after 'happi' (a loose informal Japanese coat if you didn't know), and before 'haptic' (relating to the sense of touch - obviously), there are various definitions for 'happy'. These include 'feeling or showing pleasure or contentment'; 'pleasing' and 'slightly drunk'. 

I have to say that I was slightly surprised by these definitions, as they don't seem to match the 'happiness' sold throughout our media and culture.  I don't know about you, but I think we've hyped happiness up into some kind of heavenly and perfect state of affairs that we should all individually aim for. These dictionary definitions of happiness are all pretty superficial and slightly selfish, focused on our own pleasure, maybe even to the extent that we become 'slightly drunk' on satisfying our own wants and desires. Perhaps the problem with the search for happiness is that we end up wanting "everything, all the time", to quote the Eagles.

If I'm painting an unnecessarily negative view of happiness then I apologise. Of course we can be pleased with things working our well for others etc, but I do think we have a tendency to seek our own personal happiness over and above everything else, and perhaps at the expense of others (knowingly or unknowingly).

A problem with the search for happiness is that it can lead us to an unhealthy focus on ourselves, perhaps a degree of isolationism, and also to a short-termism in our thinking and actions. In the short term, I'd happily binge on Jaffa cakes, Pringles and burgers at mealtimes rather than take the time to prepare some decent food. This bingeing may make me feel temporarily happy but pretty quickly my feelings would degenerate into guilt and (moderate) self loathing at my bad food choices and short-term perspective. Left to my own devices I know it's much more tempting to take the short-term view and make bad food choices! Food does seem to be one thing we can turn to when we're feeling unhappy! 

Reflecting on happiness, it does seem to be a shallow thing in many ways. If (as the dictionary states) it's so linked to our feelings then this makes a lot of sense, as my feelings fluctuate and don't always reflect reality! Perhaps happiness really isn't all it's cracked up to be, and if we've been sucked into the worldview that our ultimate aim is the search for happiness then maybe we've been duped!

So what should we be searching for instead? 

I think there's something deeper than superficial happiness that we can find, and it's around the idea of peace, completeness, prosperity and welfare. There's a Hebrew word which sums this up - Shalom. The idea of Shalom is more than "just" peace, but a broader sense of becoming whole - more than just the absence of conflict but instead the active presence of peacefulness. What I like about this idea is that it's less individualistic, since we generally need others to complete us, for us to prosper, and for our mutual welfare.

The word Shalom is often used as a greeting, in the style of "peace be with you", and I like the richness of meaning it conveys. I like that it's a phase used for blessing others, compared to the notion of seeking our own individual happiness. As an aside, I remember from growing up going to Mass that there's a particular moment in the liturgy where you are encouraged to offer each other the sign of peace - usually a handshake and a muttered "peace be with you" (in my experience often a slightly awkward moment). I distinctly remember an occasion as a stroppy teenager when I was clearly in a mood about something or other, and after telling me that I was "going around like a bear with a sore head" (a family saying), my Dad said to me (out of context, since we were probably in the kitchen at the time) "Peace be with you". I remember thinking this was a bit strange, since we weren't at Mass, but as I reflect on it, isn't it usually the case that we need to be reminded of this in the everyday-ness of life.. and especially when we're going around like a bear with a sore head!

So is happiness all it's cracked up to be? Probably not, and maybe this week we should stop (just) seeking our own individual and short term happiness and start seeking out a broader, deeper Shalom instead. You never know, we might just find this makes us more happy in the long run after all..

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