Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Pursuit of Happiness. Is This the Best We Can Do?

The beginning of the new year generally prompts most of the western world to contemplate the upcoming year...the possibilities that it may bring, the hopes and dreams that we would like to fulfill in the coming months.  This annual period of transition has me thinking about the various pursuits I have, and the pursuits that I see being undertaken in the world around me.  I thought I would write about that today, in the context of something I have been thinking about for a while now.  Here goes.


Matthew is struggling over a word, frustrated, not wanting help, despairing because he thought he was going to be able to read anything now that he can read.  He is determined, despite his disappointment.  But not happy.

Seth cannot remember the word twenty ("20") when I point to it.  He knows how to count way beyond twenty, can point to it in a lineup, but when asked what that number is, he still sometimes just can't do it.  When he finally remembers, grunting with exertion, he asks me to try again with him.  He is driven.  But not happy.

Lizzie is trying for the third time to fix her lego project and to follow the instruction booklet to get that little stable built for her lego ponies.  Every few minutes, I listen to her screech with impatience, knowing she has to take it apart and start again.  She is utterly focused.  But not happy.

I'm cleaning the kitchen for what seems like the hundredth time this week.  Perhaps it's been a hard week and as I load the dishwasher a few tears fall and begin the wash cycle.  I am deflated, discouraged, depressed.  Hardly the definition of happy.  But I pick up the next dish and I move onwards.

I've been stewing on what it means to be happy, and the importance of it (or not) in our lives.

A couple of years ago, during one of the kid's gym class, a few of us moms who crave intelligent (or at least empathic and adult) conversation found ourselves chatting about the goals we have for our children.  One of the notions that came up was a desire for our children's happiness.  Something about how that topic was pursued didn't sit quite well with me, but it's taken me a while to think about why, and now find the time to put pen to paper about what was bugging me about it.

The women I was talking with were not alone in their thoughts about happiness as a worthwhile pursuit for fact, I would say that this perspective is the norm in our culture.  As I go about daily life out and am out and about in the world, it is not uncommon to hear these kinds of phrases:

"I just want my kids to be happy."

"You deserve to be happy."

"Do what makes you happy/feels right/feels good."

What is it about the pursuit of happiness that obsesses our society?  Our whole world (from friends, to advertisements on tv and in magazines, to products we simply must have, to entertainment that we can't seem to live without the distraction of...) seems to sidetrack us in a direction where the pursuit of happiness is the main goal.  It's an approach that suggests that if we're not usually or always happy, we're doomed to be disappointment and dissatisfied.  Happiness is the thing to strive for (overtly and, more often, systemically), it seems...and usually this is thought of in terms of having the things that we want or in striving for a certain state of being that we think/believe/hope will be enduring.  We feel entitled to be happy; seem to think that life is about the pursuit of happiness and instant gratification; think that we deserve to feel happy (or not, if we've behaved badly in some way or another).

"Hey, married person, if your partner isn't making you happy, well, just ditch that one and find another. "

That's a pretty strong flavour in today's world and it's all about the pursuit of happiness and the sense that we are deserving of happiness.  And I'm not speaking from some high and mighty position here - there have been lots of times over the past twenty-one years when I'd love to have ditched my partner in pursuit of greener pastures; and I have no doubt he would say the same about me.

The thing is that we will ditch what is difficult or painful if pursuit of happiness is our mainstay.

To be clear, I am not depressive or negative in orientation; I am not seeking experiences of dissatisfaction and disappointment instead of this notion of happiness; and I don't really want that for my kids either.  I feel radiantly happy about life on a regular basis, am generally an optimistic person, and when I don't experience happiness for a while, I will chase a hit of dopamine as much as the next person will, and with as much abandon and creativity as necessary.  I think it's terrific to feel happy.  I love to feel happy.  And I would love for my children to feel happy - often, frequently.

But equally, I do not have as a goal for them (or for myself) to be simply happy.  Happiness is not the pursuit I would have them take up.

Why?  Well, I think the key for me hinges on my understanding/definition of 'happiness.'


What is happiness?  

First and foremost, IMO, it's an emotion.  Maybe more than that, too, but an emotion as a beginning point, I'm thinking, and likely the endpoint as well.  It may be defined as a feeling of pleasantness, perhaps?  Of well-being?  Perhaps the feeling of being in a good mood or having a cheerful outlook on the day?  It's a symptom, a result, a reflection, a feeling.  It's the sense of feeling good about the world in a given moment (or period) of time, to be followed by something lesser when circumstances change.  It's fleeting, in that it is based on 'happenings' and what happens in this life is certainly not always happy.  It is based on circumstance, and it may persist for a while or it may disappear quickly

(Note: I do not associate the word happiness with the word contentment.  Because if happiness is first and foremost an emotion/feeling, I see contentment as more of a state of being regardless of circumstances, rather like I view joy.)

The cult of 'just do what makes you happy' in North American culture (sold to us through tv, marketing, products) dooms to us, in my opinion, to being disappointed and dissatisfied because imbedded within this kind of thinking is that we should be in pursuit of happiness as an end point in itself.  And I definitely do not want disappointment and dissatisfaction for my children or for myself.

It's more than a cult following, though, this pursuit-of-happiness culture.  There's something innate in all of us, I believe, that exists on a pain-pleasure spectrum.  By this I mean that I believe there's something in all of us that makes us want to choose pleasure over pain...every time.  Instant gratification over the longer sell.  It's easier for me to just eat the cookie now because I don't want to experience the pain of self denial.  It's easier to procrastinate cleaning up the kitchen in favour of reading a book or watching something on netflix because, well, the kitchen can always wait until later.  It's easier to buy the tv or couch or whatever now before we've got the money saved up because we can buy it on credit and pay it off later and enjoy the widget now.  Whatever the choice facing us, we find it so automatic to justify our leanings toward pleasure that we often don't even think of it as a choice; unless, conscious of it, we deliberately choose to take the path less travelled.

Call it a fleeting notion of happiness, call it instant gratification, call it the pursuit of pleasure over pain, call it the fallenness of mankind; by whatever name we use, our society as a whole is altogether far too consumed with this pursuit of the fleeting. We (myself very much included) chase after moments of instant gratification and tend to think that life sucks if we don't get to roll around in our state of happiness on a regular (or constant?) basis.   We have an expectation that we should experience happiness, not understanding that all this pursuit leads to is unrealistic and unreasonable expectations.

I tend to be both drawn to, and repulsed by, that notion of happiness.  On the draw side, who doesn't like to feel in-the-moment happy about something?  I surely do.  I love being happy with life, love feeling good about stuff, love feeling like I've got it all together.  But I'm also rather repulsed by the notion of happiness-in-the-moment because I tend (perhaps wrongly) to think of the pursuit of happiness as an inherently selfish thing and the establishment of a wrong priority; I see happiness as an elusive thing...difficult to find, challenging to catch, impossible to achieve with any permanence.

What I'm saying, albeit poorly, is that I'm interested in more than happiness.  I'm interested, for example, in learning how to do the right thing, even when it's not comfortable and even when it's not leading me to moments of happiness.  I'm interested, as another example, in listening to God's input into my life which, when I obey it, seems often to lead me first through moments of great discomfort before moving on eventually to feelings of completeness and peace and a sureness that I've done what I was meant to be doing.  I'm interested, as a third example, in investing in other people's lives:  First, my family's life; secondly, the lives of friends; and, increasingly, our church.

In addition, as a person of faith who sees the Bible as God's word (yes, I'm going religious here for a moment, and I may again!), I don't remember reading anywhere in the Bible (and I'm open to being wrong!) that we are to pursue happiness or that happiness is some kind of guaranteed outcome for a certain, even laudable, even God-like way of living life. 

In fact, as a believer in the Bible, I see Jesus as telling us that we may instead experience more lasting states of peace and joy, even though in this world we will experience trouble.  Peace and joy are not the same thing as happiness because happiness is based on happenings and happenings are temporary, but the bible tells us that the peace of God endures forever, even in the hardship of life.

Through my learning with the Neufeld Institute and the years of Neufeld-based therapy that helped Geoff and me survive the past few years as adoptive (and biological) parents, I have also learned that feeling the pain and sadness and futility associated with the things in our lives that we cannot change, are ultimately what will bring about adaptation and enable us to build resilience and to feel the corollary of those hard feelings - including happiness.  It is not a pursuit of happiness that will enable us to adapt to life's circumstances, but rather the endurance and survival of the difficult things.  A by-product of believing this theory to be true is understanding, really and truly, that if we pursue happiness, we will inevitably resist/deny those experiences of futility that are really what will bring about the possibility of feeling happiness as well as, in my view, the more significant states of joy/contentment/peace.

Whew.  That was a mouthful, and it's been wanting to come out of me for a while.

So what am I looking for, for my children and for myself, if not happiness?

Well, I'll start my thought first from the perspective of being a Christian parent:  I would love it if my children grow up to be Christian men and woman seeking God's will for their lives.  In addition, like many parents, I imagine, I wish them to be kind and compassionate people who are socially conscious and environmentally intentional; I hope that they find a partner to share their life with who is of like faith and their best friend and I hope that they have an opportunity to be parents; I wish that they would be able to pursue the kind of daytime occupation that would see them utilizing their gifts and talents, whether that be in a stay-at-home capacity or a financially employed capacity; I hope that they have sufficient income to support themselves and any family they might have.  I would dearly love for them to experience joy despite circumstance, and heart-embedded peace that is eternal.

A couple of years ago, when I was first thinking about that gym class conversation with the other moms, I did a very light bit of research into what happiness meant.  In the course of this, I wrote down a few lines from a piece of writing that I came across.   I apologize that I cannot quote its source...I jotted the lines down without referencing where it came from.  But this author echoed some of my own thoughts when s/he wrote the following:

"...I absolutely want my children to feel happy, often, frequently, sustainably.  But I don't just want them to be happy.  I want them to be...fulfilled.  To know how to get full.  And how to fill others. I want them to be purposeful, to have purpose, and live lives of meaning.  I want them to be resilient. And grateful.  To contribute, build, create, change.  Help.  Love.  Be Loved.  I want them to pursue difficult things.  To glow with success and satisfaction when they succeed - to cry and mourn and to learn and find a way to move forward when they fail.  I want them to know how to to persevere...and you know, also, how to give up.  Because that's a skill, too, and sometimes you've got to stop beating your head against the wall, step away, and look around for a rope ladder with which to climb over that wall...  I want them to be...human.  Alive.  Fully alive, aware. And that means: They will be sad. So sad. Angry.  Thwarted.  Frustrated.  Discouraged.  Disappointed.  Battered.  Rejected.  Full of suffering, angst.  And then, later, or even at the same time, they will be in the flow, productive, thrilled, ecstatic, stoked, oh-so-happy... But in the pursuit of something other, grander, more important, more meaningful, bigger than 'just being happy.'"

We've all seen it in the kids we know/parent/love:  They're happy one moment; crushed the next.  It's part of the roller coaster of life, this happiness/disappointment pendulum.  Let's seek more for our kids, be the voice that drowns out the messages they hear all around them in this crazy world.  Let's teach them that there is so much better to be had than the momentary gratification that is all that the pursuit of happiness has to offer them.  For other believers in the Bible, we know this to be so true - that there's a far greater reason for our existence than the happiness of the here and now.  For all of us, let's rather model the pursuit of being - in a state of contentment/joy regardless of circumstance, in a state of peace regardless of the shifting sands around us.


  1. I agree whole heartedly. If I had been the one to describe the conversation at gym class though, it might have sounded a bit different.

    1. Thanks Jen!
      I'm embarrassed that I don't even remember that you were part of that conversation!! I'm so sorry. I have a distinct memory of two other specific people there, because their comments made a specific impact on me, but it makes sense to me that you were there because of course your kids and mine were part of the same gym class.

      Tell me more, tell me more! I didn't think I even said much about that conversation here beyond introducing the topic (truth be told, I tried to be careful to say virtually nothing specific beyond having a discussion about happiness being a goal we talked about for our children...and the rest of my post was all my own thoughts/notions/beliefs that have evolved pursuant to that), but I would LOVE to hear your memories of that conversation and how we could tie it into this blog post (or not!).

      Thanks for being here...and thanks for commenting!

      Hugs. Ruth

    2. Re-reading your comment, Jen, I'm wondering now if you thought I was perhaps re-stating that whole conversation here in this blog post...which we definitely did NOT get to in that conversation. I don't know if it helps, but beyond introducing the topic by way of that conversation which has generated so much thought for me since, the rest of the blog post is all post that own thought process/evolution since that conversation.

      I hope that helps!


  2. Hi Ruth, interesting that you brought this up, as we talked to our kids about this the other day. Found this quote from Tim Keller on a blog I follow ( The opposite of joy is not sadness, it's hopelessness. We talked as a family how joy is long lasting, as opposed to happiness, and how an attitude of thankfulness is foundational to all. And isn't it 'funny' how it's all laid out in the Bible? ;) Cindy

    1. That makes sense to me Cindy. And how interesting that the same kind of conversation has been happening on your end. Much food for thought...and I'm going to check out that blog link...thanks!