The Stressful Search for Happiness
When I was in my early twenties people kept telling me, “These are the best years of your life.” This platitude caused me significant stress because I started worrying about whether I’m enjoying myself enough. It was then that I realized how tiring a self-conscious search for “happiness” can be.
Every day on Twitter I notice at least a few articles that discuss how to achieve a lasting sense of inner peace, or realize your full potential, or find that ever-elusive state of happiness. With the rise of the blogging culture, every Joe is taking to his computer to tell us the secret to an improved life. Self-help books line the walls of every bookstore — I hear they sell well.
“Meditate, do yoga, stretch, run, hum, chant, fast for 3 days, fast for 5 days, get a life coach, eat quinoa, eat kale, eat chia, quit dairy, quit gluten, get into this habit, drop that habit,” cry the experts and the gurus.
As a culture, we are in relentless and very self-aware pursuit of an improved outlook on life and a complete maximization of our potential.
To say that this pursuit is caused by a somewhat toxic and overly-fast lifestyle we lead is an understatement. Yes, we live in a distracted, hectic, and somewhat alienated age, and we look for fixes in places that we might not have looked in our less stressed moments. Nor do I think it is bad for human beings to have ambitions and strive to improve.
However, I believe that the way in which our culture has embraced the Hollywood-styled concept of happiness (a combination of financial success and romantic and social fulfillment, resulting in, somewhat paradoxically, both a state of permanent, deep contentment and steady excitement) is making us just plain exhausted.
This is because happiness as per Hollywood is a stuff of sheer fantasy. To chase this phantom is to become chronically stressed and dwarfed by our own expectations.
This is why I was particularly refreshed by reading a recent BBC article by Manuela Saragosa entitled “How to Be Mediocre and Be Happy with Yourself.” In discussing the contemporary “tyranny of excellence,” the article begs the question of whether it might not just be better to have ambition but to accept that a vast majority of us are average and lead perfectly average — and averagely stressed — lives.
Contrary to this popular tendency to run after the “happy,” I’ve spent a significant amount of time thinking about the fact that real self-enlightenment, if we are to be perfectly honest, results in the realization that life will always be somewhat stressful, that ambition is healthy but pursuit of excellence draining, and that moments of profound contentment can only occur if we also experience moments of anxiety, angst, anger, antipathy, or whatever other uncomfy “feel” you can think of (like when you eat Nutella with a spoon after a hard day at work).
So here’s my miracle tip to an improved life: Stop trying so hard to be happy and you’ll likely end up more at ease with yourself and the rest of the world.