The cult of happiness is making us miserable. The happiness that obsesses popular culture is but a brief dopamine reward for desired events and behaviors, like a treat for a dog. Somehow the gently feeble minds of the masses have been convinced by self-help culture and the tech mentality that human happiness is a sort-of mountain peak that we will all colonize once we figure out how to stay up there without falling off.
This couldn’t be farther from the case. Happiness is a climax, meaning it’s dynamic. It relies on the buildup of prior events, which requisitely must not be the same events that lead to the burst of happy feeling. The uncertainty about the health of one’s newborn baby leads to the period of relieved happiness when it’s found that everything is ok. The staying up wondering if the person you had a date with is going to call you back is a period of uncertainty that strengthens the eventual release— should it occur. I won’t make any promises…
This should it occur is tantamount to the popular concept of happiness. It resembles a dramatic plot, which, thanks to film and television, most people have been subconsciously programmed to project as a framework onto real life. If this conception of happiness is a gamble, which it is, then we’re all problem gamblers. We stake the opportunity for present contentment on a potential future reward. The longer we wait and suffer for that potential reward, the sweeter the little dope burst feels if and when it finally hits. Perhaps “happiness junkies” is more sufficient term?
If you’ve ever known a junkie, you’ll know precisely why addiction of any sort is a dead end. When we become too obsessed with happiness, we give up on life. We trade the potentiality of now for a delayed perceived gratification later. We become unable to deal with suffering rather than learning from it.
Uncertainty only adds to the jackpot. But, like a junkie, the hits don’t hit as hard over time. We experience a few humble successes and begin thirsting for more and more. We may even surpass our wildest expectations in accomplishments, but the receptors have weakened from years of abuse, and it’s never enough. This is where the mass cult of happiness leads us, towards blind mindless dopamine addiction. It is, quite literally, narcotic.
What to do? Overcoming this trap is actually not as difficult as one might think. It mostly just requires an initial realization, a breaking point. You might wonder why so many wealthy, famous and successful people eventually find spirituality or become gurus— it’s because they found themselves with everything they’d ever dreamed of but realized it would never be enough. The material realm is not the realm in which human beings become self-actualized. There’s no house big enough for your soul’s aspirations. No matter what you have in the fleeting external world of possessions, you’re only as good as your inner-strength.
This is a beautiful thing; it means that your position in the world does not matter. Whether you’re a cab driver or a CEO, you have a choice: direct your attention outwards or inwards. Focus on chasing the elusive carrot stick, or focus on your innermost truth. Meditate, meditate, meditate. Other activities like exercise, hiking, music and even art can help the mind enter this state of inner-being.
As we cultivate truth within over time, it doesn’t matter what happens outside. Instead of obsessing over little hits of happiness, we make peace with the inevitable suffering that precedes it. We might even try willfully subjecting ourselves to suffering as a test of inner-strength. Popular culture does not give the spiritual element enough credit; it makes it seem like just another way to acquire stuff and feel good about yourself. What it actually does is cultivate a resistance to weakness, mediocrity, ignorance, and vanity. The concept of transcendence means, of course, rising above.