Opinion

Is our obsession with being happy making us miserable?

We're all in the pursuit of happiness, but what exactly are we pursuing - and is it even worth having? Top writers weigh in

03 September 2017 - 00:00 By Staff reporters

HAPPINESS IS NOT A CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT: REBECCA DAVIS
Do you know how many times "happiness" appears in the South African constitution? Zero. The same goes for our Bill of Rights.
Compare that with the US Declaration of Independence, which famously list one of three "unalienable rights" as the "pursuit of happiness".
Being happy also doesn't feature in our national anthem, which is too busy praying to God and listing the country's topographical features.
This is the case for most of the SADC countries' anthems, although Botswana is an exception.
The Botswanan anthem sings the praise of "this happy land": a perk of being the oldest uninterrupted democracy in Africa?
Other countries take the imperative of national happiness to the next level. The Ministry for Utmost Happiness is not just the title of the latest Arundhati Roy novel. Venezuela appointed a Vice Ministry of Supreme Social Happiness in 2013, shortly before its starving population started eating zoo animals.The United Arab Emirates has had a minister of happiness since last year. "What is the purpose of government if it does not work towards the happiness of the people?" Minister Ohood bint Khalfan Roumi asked a journalist recently.
She may have a point, but I can't imagine a Department of Happiness in Mzansi. Maybe in a country forged in as much conflict as South Africa, happiness is considered more of a luxury than a right. The notion rarely crops up in local politicians' speeches, or even election campaigns.
In fact, if you had to go door to door and tell ordinary voters that they had the right to chase happiness, they might punch you in the nose. Happiness is for sissies, and foreigners, and Pharrell. We South Africans are survivors.
And perhaps we have the right idea about this. Among the Stoics, the most desirable state of mind was not "happiness" but "tranquility". As I grow older, this notion has a lot of appeal for me. Happiness is wonderful, but I'll settle for simple peace of mind.HAPPINESS IS A FAIRLY MODERN OBSESSION: TOM EATON
Explore the warm depths and ephemeral edges of this thing we call happiness, but please leave enough space for a picture. Grope towards that shimmering shape in the mist, but don't forget to buy milk on the way. Reach for the Holy Grail, but only on Saturday mornings. Happiness is a fairly modern obsession.
A century ago, few people dreamed of finding their soulmate or carving out a fulfilling career. If they found a relatively clean spouse and regular income, they'd done OK.
We, on the other hand, are told that there is no higher purpose than to be happy. The trouble is, we aren't told where to find that happiness or how to know it when we see it. Worse, we aren't given the space to figure it out.Which is how I ended up on Google, trying to catch a glimpse of this happiness that's making us so miserable. In retrospect, it was probably the wrong place to start.
"The happy man only feels at ease because the unhappy bear their burden in silence," wrote Anton Chekhov. "Without this silence, happiness would be impossible."
Without knowing it he was writing about the internet: the unhappy are no longer bearing their burden in silence, and their Facebook updates are bumming us out.HAPPINESS COMES IN PHASES: ARCHIE HENDERSON
Happiness is hard to pin down, but I know it when I feel it. And it comes in phases.
As a kid, it came easily: mother's food, cowboy movies, a rugby ball, a cricket ball. It got harder when learning to ride a bike or trying to kiss a girl. Once achieved, both were moments of ecstatic happiness.
Hearing Elvis for the first time, or Bill Haley, or Little Richard, usually on LM Radio, brought happiness. So did Eagle comic.
Adolescence threatened happiness unless you worked at it: illicit trysts, drinking or adventuring into the unknown, once even over the fence and into the Kruger Park. The risk was worth it because the stories made for happy boasting.
Early adulthood brought happiness through liberation: a driver's licence, regular money from a job, regular beer and irregular sex. Some childish happiness remained: Western Province winning the Currie Cup and the Boks beating the All Blacks (and everyone else in those days).
Such frivolity became less important with the birth of two sons, moments of unexpected, joyous and enduring happiness.Finding happiness as you grow older is less easy; grumpiness gets in the way. It helps when you find love after a false start, especially when the love of your life helps you work through the desolation of old unhappiness and indulges your long-windedness. Happiness is when she still laughs at jokes she's heard a thousand times. Happiness is finding new material.
Happiness is also a finely honed bullshit detector: 70 is bloody well not the new 60. Putting down platitudes makes you happy.
I now seize happiness where I can find it: going to bed with a good book, a night of sleep uninterrupted by a weak bladder, watching someone else braai, being the car's passenger. All that and still being able to kick a rugby ball. Well, sort of.HAPPINESS IS WHERE THE WI-FI IS: PEARL BOSHOMANE
What is happiness? Wi-Fi. Hold the eye roll. This is not a millennial praise song about the joys of stalking people's Instagram timelines or following a hilarious public dragging on Twitter - although that is always fun (unless you're the one being dragged for filth).
See, Wi-Fi is not just Wi-Fi: it is happiness in the form of radio waves and signals. It represents a certain degree of financial security. In a country where 30 million people live in poverty, Wi-Fi is a privilege.
Wi-Fi is what you get when you don't have to worry about transport money or being behind on rent. When you're not drowning in debt, have clothes on your back and disposable income, you get Wi-Fi.HAPPINESS IS THE ULTIMATE MARKETING GIMMICK: YOLISA MKHELE
Some time ago on a wobbling blue speck in a lactating galaxy, a bunch of rather clever primates got together and started grappling with a problem that has plagued them ever since: what is happiness? At first it was a fairly simple equation: food + sex + shelter = happy.
Legend has it that this all changed when a small gang of proto hipsters began pseudo-intellectualising about the best ways to ethically source quagga meat or something equally ridiculous. Thus began the never-ending pursuit of happiness that would give us Joel Osteen, capitalism, Floyd Mayweather v Conor McGregor and the justification for just about everything humans have ever done.
The problem is that happiness doesn't really enjoy being caught and has a particular talent for oozing through your fingers and fleeing when you think you have it.Despite what Julia Roberts would have you to believe, no amount of spiritually enlightening trips abroad meeting delicious Spanish men will make you happy for longer than it takes you to get sick of him farting in bed.
Having all the money in the world won't help either. After all, if you can do everything, what's the incentive to do anything? Rich people also have a proclivity for incest and distasteful character flaws that only other rich people seem to be able to see beyond.
Perhaps happiness, in any kind of lasting sense, is the ultimate marketing gimmick. A ruse to emotionally manipulate you into being a good societal puzzle piece.
A scam to get you to buy that makeup, that holiday or education. A swindle to con you into paying for that wedding and donating to that church. A subterfuge to give you the courage to kiss that girl and buy those drugs.
When you get them, they look all sparkly and new. That warm glow permeates your body as you get emotionally aroused at all the possibilities and scenarios your new thing gets you.
But it is never long before they get boring, before their Wabi-sabi charm wears thin and your journey of "personal growth" sends you in search of something else.HAPPINESS IS OFTEN A FANTASY: 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.HAPPINESS IS THE TRAVELLER: YEWANDE OMOTOSO
Happiness is the traveller. As a teenager I once asked my father about happiness. I assume I must have been experiencing acute seemingly unabating sadness and I was looking for an explanation, looking for a way to get to the other side, to be happy again.
My father said happiness was not, in fact, the point of life, and that the best way to be was to understand that something like happiness was fleeting. I can't remember if he offered an alternative or if he left me with that simple potentially devastating piece of information.
Over the years I've grappled with his words. I've come to regard happiness as a capricious spirit to be cuddled and tickled when present and only shallowly yearned for when not.Happiness is the traveller: it arrives, it lingers and eventually it leaves, to return again another day to leave again and so on. It is indeed lovely, filled with a delicious sensual quality, but its job, like time, is to keep going; there is really no way to imagine that anyone could ever hold it captive.
And yet often I am still that teenager looking for a way to get to the other side. Why does it seem happiness is the badge for good mental health, why do I sometimes feel a flush of shame to admit to my sadness, opening myself up to pity?
Recently, over a period of about 30 days, I found myself crying and then, sometimes within days, laughing till my ribs ached. I recall having a moment of clarity, thinking the quality of my happiness is not disconnected from the depths of my sadness; I can only feel one because I can feel the other.
So instead of pity or shame I in fact felt brave and open and remarkably strong. None of which made the sadness less poignant - but it is more able to be borne. And I wondered if that was the point - to strive to be awake to life and suitably robust to be able to feel everything, happiness included.

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