You could be looking for happiness in all the wrong places

Too many people are chasing a fantasy that is likely to lead to unhappiness, writes Jacques Rousseau

01 September 2017 - 20:04 By Jacques Rousseau

Barbara Ehrenreich’s breast cancer diagnosis wasn’t the most unsettling discovery she had in the early 2000s. Instead, as she describes in Smile or Die, it was the realisation that positive thinking and naïve optimism lie behind many of society’s ills.
Our faith in incompetent leaders, our willingness to be fooled by quack science, and our wasteful spending on quick fixes for perceived deficits in our lives are examples of being driven to fix problems we only have because we are products of the happiness industry.
Pursuing happiness, and avoiding unhappiness, have become absolute values to the extent that we can no longer tolerate difficulties in life. Unsurprisingly, this can get in the way of learning how to deal with life’s inevitable disappointments.
Simply put, happiness consists of the fulfilment of one’s desires. The problem with happiness today, though, might well be that we have lost touch with what our desires should be — at least in the sense of making sure that they are authentically ours, rather than a reaction to the prescriptions of lifestyle gurus or aspirational advertising.
Or maybe this is an inappropriate way to be thinking about happiness. “Life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced,” said Kierkegaard, and detaching ourselves from an outcome-based existence — or trying to do so some of the time —might be a more successful method for achieving contentedness.
Various strands of cultural influence point in this direction: mindfulness meditation long ago stopped being esoteric, mostly practised by folk who burn incense. The Scandinavian idea of hygge (untranslatable, my Danish wife insists, but I’ll go with “cosiness ” or the Afrikaans geselligheid ) has spawned far too many books in recent years.
And, going back Roman Imperial times, the Stoics Seneca and Epictetus taught us that living virtuously, rather than chasing goals, was the path to happiness. The idea of “stoic calm” suggests we can immunise ourselves against much misfortune by dropping the pretence of things being under our control, and that there’s something out there — if only I can find it! — that can make us happy.
This isn’t a recipe for fatalism, but rather serves as a reminder that what you think might make life better could in fact be something you can do without — and that it’s the desire for more that sometimes gets in the way of recognising the good things you already have.
Nor is this a reason to romanticise poverty, or to deny ourselves occasional luxuries. But there’s an ocean of difference between the sort of struggle involved in worrying about how many times you can go out to dinner this month, and the struggle of worrying about whether you can feed your family tomorrow at all.
Those of us who are fortunate enough to not encounter those desperate struggles should give more thought to why we have the desires we do, when they open the door to unhappiness when unfulfilled.
Once we’ve subscribed to some advertiser’s vision of the perfect life, it becomes easy to forget that chasing a fantasy is always likely to lead to unhappiness. They are called fantasies for a reason, after all.
• Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town

This article is reserved for Sunday Times subscribers.

A subscription gives you full digital access to all Sunday Times content.

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Registered on the BusinessLIVE, Business Day or Financial Mail websites? Sign in with the same details.

Questions or problems? Email or call 0860 52 52 00.