Should we seek happiness?

Q. ‘Mark, there is a German proverb: “Happiness is a butterfly. Chase it and it eludes you. Sit down quietly and it will alight on your shoulder.”
The proverb sounds good, but it’s wrong. The philosopher John Stuart Mill said something similar: ‘Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.’ He was wrong too. The people who claim that seeking happiness is futile don’t know where to look. People used to believe it was impossible to build a flying machine because they couldn’t figure out how to do it.
Core happiness comes from satisfying long-term innate needs.

‘Only through recognising my happiness did I really appreciate it.’
Gretchen Rubin.

Q. ‘What right have we to be happy in such a troubled world, with so much suffering?’
Being happy doesn’t mean being unaffected by the suffering in the world; nor does it mean condoning it. It means we aren’t defeated by it.
  Further, it must be asked: who would it help if you were to remain unhappy?
  Anyway, people enjoy seeing you happy. Your loved ones especially.

Q. ‘Mark, if I become happy I’ll become content, and lose my passion, my drive, my motivation, so that any chance I have of excelling in my chosen field will dissipate like smoke in the wind.’
No, with a strong core happiness you won’t have a chance to live a bland, passionless existence. Instead, you will be taking risks, and extending your boundaries, because you can allow yourself to be vulnerable, knowing that whatever happens, you’ll handle it. With a strong core happiness you will be more productive. Happiness is not about contentment.

Q. ‘In his book, ‘Against Happiness’, Eric G. Wilson pointed out that unhappiness has prompted wonderful art and stirring music, and he fears that we might become bland without these ‘agitations of the soul’. Doesn’t he have a point? Don’t we need the agitations of the soul so that we can create something wonderful, like music, or poetry, and feed the souls of others?’
A happy person will still have the agitations of the soul – there will always be something inside each and every one of us that needs saying. Being happy will not kill that; instead it will give you the freedom and confidence to express those agitations. A musician might in dark times compose music so beautiful it feeds the listener’s soul, but that does not mean the musician can’t enjoy the better times. When you have a strong core happiness you can deal with the dark times, and what better way to deal with them than to express them in music, or in poetry, or in what drives you?

Q. ‘Mark, we need our suffering, so that when the good times do come we can appreciate them with gusto.’
Happy people still suffer; they still feel all the emotions. They just aren’t shattered by them. And when you are not shattered by your emotions you can grow. Many people have suffered and become twisted and bitter. It’s not the suffering which helps us grow, it’s how we deal with our suffering.

Q. ‘Mark, who wants to be a grinning idiot with no real substance?’
Being happy is not about being a grinning idiot. With a strong core happiness you will still experience those dark emotions – hurt, anger, fear, sadness, grief . . . but as I said above, you won’t be shattered by them. Whatever happens, you know that tomorrow you will be okay again.

Q. ‘Mark, someone once said: “Don’t impose on us happiness. We don’t care about being happy, we need to live with passion. We like our ups and downs; we like our suffering because it’s so good when it ceases for a while.”’
As I say, being happy doesn’t mean living without passion, or without ups and downs. It’s about living with those ups and downs and handling them. And yes, we enjoy happiness when our suffering ceases, but remember, suffering is merely an example of our temporary unhappiness, and euphoria is an example of our temporary happiness. Neither contributes to our core happiness. It’s important to distinguish between our temporary happiness and our core happiness.

Q. ‘In his TED talk, Don Norman says, ‘when you’re positive you’re happy, you’re relaxed and creative, but when you’re negative you’re focused, trying to focus on the problem in front of you. And to be successful you need to have both.’
Yes, we do need to have both. A person with a strong core happiness will have both.

Q. ‘Isn’t searching for happiness a bit twee? Surely we have more important things to focus on, such as living our life?’
I’m not suggesting that the aim of life is to be happy. Life is to be lived; happiness is a lubricant to make it worth living.

Q. ‘Isn’t happiness a part of our DNA? Andy Coghlan of New Scientist found (from the Journal of Human Genetics) that happiness might come from having two copies of a particular gene. Doesn’t this mean happiness is out of our hands?’
Your genes play only a part. Someone born with ‘glum’ genes can still become happier, as can a cheery person, if they have been undermining their core happiness. The ideas in this book are not designed to raise a person’s happiness level above their innate level, just restore it to the level it should be.

Q. ‘If I find myself unable to apply your ideas I might conclude that I am at fault. I might feel like a failure.’
Possibly. Despite all my protestations, you might do that. You might even criticise yourself for being self-critical.
If you find yourself being self-critical while reading this book, or while applying the exercises, ignore this book. Honestly.

In short, being happy is not about being a grinning idiot. It’s not about contentment, or suffering, or avoiding suffering. It’s not about keeping yourself well back from the abyss. It’s about approaching the abyss, and peering deep down into it, so that although your very soul may shiver you know, on a deep and fundamental level, that you will not succumb. It’s that confidence, that knowledge that we can handle whatever happens, that allows our anxiety to evaporate, and core happiness to rise in its place.

Can we aim to be happy?

You betcha.

‘Don’t aim to have an easy life, aim to be a strong person.’
John F. Kennedy.