By Brianna Wiest
Alan Watts taught that the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are one in the same – that “to hold your breath is to lose your breath.” Traditional Zen Buddhism would agree: to desire fulfillment is to not have fulfillment, happiness is not something you seek, but that which you become.
These ideas are nice (albeit likely just platitudes for most people) but they illustrate the madness behind the common wisdom of “chasing happiness.” As Andrew Weil has said: the idea that human beings should be constantly happy is “a uniquely modern, uniquely American, uniquely destructive idea.”
It is our desire for perpetual happiness that drives consumerism, eases the fact that we’re all barreling toward uncertain death, and keeps us hungering for more. In many ways, it – alongside our existential fear of death and suffering – accounts for why we’ve innovated and developed the society we live in. Our lack of fulfillment has driven us because the quest for happiness does not and will not cease.
This is largely due to Hedonic Adaptation, which is really just the fact that human beings get used to what happens to them. We change, we adjust, we adapt, we crave more. Psychologists also call it the “baseline,” the way in which we regulate ourselves to come back to “neutral” after different life events occur.
Chasing happiness is trying to keep ourselves sustained by “positive” life events, rather than adjusting the baseline as a whole. Motivating ourselves with the hope of achieving a sustained feeling of “good” is not only unhealthy, it’s impossible.
If you want to be happy, you need to stop chasing happiness. Happiness is a byproduct of doing things that are challenging, meaningful, beautiful and worthwhile.
It is wiser to spend a life chasing knowledge, or the ability to think clearly and with more dimension, than it is to just chase what “feels good.” It is wiser to chase the kind of discomfort that only comes with doing something so profound and life-altering that you are knocked off your orbit. It is wiser to tip the scales over rather than balance things you don’t like only because you believe balance will make you “happy.” It is wiser to do things that are hard and make you feel vulnerable and raw than it is to avoid them because comfort makes you feel temporarily, fleetingly good.
At the end of the day, to avoid pain is to avoid happiness (they are opposite forces within the same function). To numb ourselves to one side of our feeling capacity is to shut down everything. It leaves us chasing the kind of empty happiness that never really fills us, and leaves us shells of the people we are really destined to be.