Almost all of us hold irrational beliefs about happiness and this is what prevents us from actually living a happy and productive life. A positive psychologist, Sonja Lumbiorsky has discussed this wonderfully in her book “ The Myths of Happiness” .
She wrote that we have a firm belief that certain adult achievements (marriage, kids, jobs, wealth) will make us forever happy and that certain adult failures or adversities (health problems, not having a life partner, having little money) will make us forever unhappy.
We don’t enjoy the journey of life; or the current blessings but keep looking for utopian future that we believe will make us happy. Although it is correct that those dreams will make us happy.
But the problem is that these achievements—even when initially perfectly satisfying—will not make us as intensely happy (or for as long) as we believe they will and in the end realise this was not worth it. In the words of Socrates, “He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.”
Likewise In his book , “Pursuit of Perfect” , Tal Ben-Shahar described that the sense of accomplishment and happiness he felt after becoming country’s youngest national squash tournament lasted for mere three hours.
Another APA distinguished scientific achievement awardee was asked how long his happiness over being the recipient of the prestigious award lasted; he replied one day.
Same way the negative events which we fear like loss of a job, betrayal by spouse, break up in relationship or a disease etc., are not as adverse and intolerable as we expect or believe.
We are bestowed by nature with psychological immune system, we are more resilient to endure the pain. There is no such thing like eternal happiness or eternal pain. What seems an adversity or negative event offers equal benefits too. This can be best explained by the story of a farmer:
Long time back there was a wise farmer in a poor village. He was considered as well off by others because he owned a horse. One day his beloved horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbours came to console him.
“Such a bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “May be,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned with six wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbours rejoiced. “May be,” replied the farmer. The other day, his son was thrown by one of the wild horses while taking a ride and he broke his leg.
Again, the neighbours visited the farmer to sympathise with him and said it was such a misfortune .“May be,” replied the farmer. The day after that, recruitment officers came to the village to appoint youth into the army. Seeing his son had a broken leg, they appointed him. The neighbours congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “May be,” the farmer replied.
This story offers a lesson that joy and sorrow are woven together and both are transitory. Many times happiness comes with a cost and adversity comes with opportunity and wisdom lies in embracing both.
Lets relate this story to a concept called “Tragic triad” given by Victor Frankl, an influential existential psychologist. According to the tragic triad, every human passes through three bitter ultimate realities of life: Suffering, Guilt and Transitoriness.
Every human experiences suffering in life; be that related to health, finances, academia, career or personal life. None can live a suffering free life; this is the ultimate reality of life.
Other component in tragic triad is”Guilt”. It means all of us experience guilt at one or other point in life, be that about having wasted time, or about having missed an opportunity, or having regrets about being wronged, or having done something wrong, or a guilt of not having enjoyed the life. The last component and the third ultimate reality is death. In other words humans are mortal, and life is short lived and transitory, no joy or sorrow lasts forever.
However the tragic triad offers equal benefits. It comes with tragic optimism. If we talk about sufferings they bring us closer to God; they help in purification of souls; they make us empathetic and humble; they help us in testing our relations; they give us a better and realistic understanding of life and make us strong and resilient.
In the words of Mulana Rumi, “The wound is the place where light enters you”. Likewise Guilt is a blessing; it offers us an insight about our mistakes and prepares us for self –improvement and growth; until a person experiences guilt he/she won't mend ways.
Guilt improves our relation with people and God; we cannot seek forgiveness until we feel guilty of our actions. Likewise it is transitoriness of life that makes living easy; it creates a mindset in us that this too shall pass; and acceptance of our mortality and unpredictability of death motivates us to strive for our goals and to prepare for afterlife.
It is the realisation of mortality that ignities the spark of doing something great so as to be remembered after death. Artists die but they live through their art; scientists die but their achievements live; teachers and parents die but their values remain alive through their obedient children.
In her book “ Myths of happiness”, Lumbiorsky has presented many strategies for being happy ; this includes maintaining a gratitude log, using money in meaningful and prosocial ways; living and enjoying the present moment; doing the work one loves and looking for the goodness and meaning in everything; at the same time she cautions about idealising the achievements like job, marriage, having a kid because those who idealise these things feel discontented once they attain them. According to her, these are just myths that I will be happy if I get married to right person or if I get much coveted job or if I get kids.
One should have a realistic understanding and acceptance of both and negative aspects of their goals in order to be happy.
A much coveted job and promotion comes with happiness as well as responsibilities. Marriage comes with love, care and respect but is accompanied by misunderstandings and responsibilities too.
Same way kids bring happiness but parenting brings challenges too. She emphasised that we as humans have a tendency called hedonic adaptation, which means no matter how great a blessing or achievement person receives but he can cherish that only for some time.
After that it becomes a routine; his happiness level falls and comes to the baseline, and this hedonic adaptation can make us take blessings for granted; e.g., in marriages, marital bliss fades away with time.
A person after getting a job may start losing its value and this is where boredom enters a person’s life that’s why a person should consciously bring freshness and novelty in life.
Couples should try new ways of showing love and care; employees and students should keep upgrading their skills and keep learning something new so that they can feel meaning and happiness in things they do.
Human psyche seeks and appreciates newness and freshness. Above all happiness cannot be pursued but ensued. We have to work for it consciously.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.