On Being Happy

It’s common to encounter a message in Western culture, both implicitly and explicitly that one’s happiness is life’s ultimate aim—an end in itself. Happiness is sometimes presented as something to achieve, typically by way of five or six easy steps. Some say it can be bought, others say it can’t be bought and that it’s a human right. Some say happiness is getting what you want in life or not being too sad, anxious or scared. As a psychotherapist, I’m skeptical of these assumptions and of their impact on the capacity to be fully engaged in life and in relationships. After all, to really love is to also be disappointed—to really grow is also to lose. In an article in The Guardian entitled, “The Happiness Myth”, Adam Phillips, a British psychoanalyst writes, “…the right to frustration may be more useful and interesting—more enlivening—than the right to happiness…I want to waylay the common, all too-plausible idea that the solution to frustration is satisfaction, or that happiness is the answer to unhappiness, or that if we get rid of the bad things, the good things will start happening.” I think Phillips’ comments also beg a question of ‘if achieving happiness is an end, what other things along the way must be given up?’ Is happiness a fixed state achieved through great effort, or one of many unintended and passing results of really experiencing the life around us? If we really sink our teeth into the world we live in, experiencing it for what it is, how would it be fair to expect to always be happy? Is there a more flexible aim in life that makes room for happiness as well as a full spectrum of other feelings? If the only acceptable option is happiness, how does one engage with losses, regrets, hesitations and the myriad other ordinary, yet profound human experiences? The exclusive aim for happiness seems to imply that other feelings are not useful. I think that even more important than achieving happiness is developing the capacity to move more freely through whatever the emotional landscape presents.