Why we should stop chasing the happiness rainbow

ON HAPPINESS: People constantly trying to catch it are too busy chasing it to appreciate it when it's there. Picture: SHUTTERSTOCK
ON HAPPINESS: People constantly trying to catch it are too busy chasing it to appreciate it when it's there. Picture: SHUTTERSTOCK

Happiness, noun, the state of being happy. Aristotle identifies happiness as the main purpose of human life and as a goal to achieve in itself.

Perhaps I'm in the throes of a COVID-19 pandemic-induced existential crisis, but I can't help but wonder at the futility of such a pursuit.

As humans, we seem intent on measuring our lives. Are you successful? Are you making a difference? Are you useful? Are you happy? We measure our lives by imagined abstract yardsticks.

Why do we have to weigh and measure ourselves? Why do we have to compare the measurements of our lives to each other's?

I am finding it increasingly astonishing that the very basis of our understanding of who we are is based on a constructed idea of what we should be.

In order to be accepted, we have to conform - and yet the people we admire are the people who stand out as different. It is, perhaps, one of the greatest paradoxes of human society.

The pursuit of happiness is so ingrained in our western culture that it is written into the US Declaration of Independence as a right.

While we don't live under this constitution in Australia, our global community has led to us assuming certain parallels to (at least the good bits of) the cultures of neighbouring national communities.

Our commercial arena has certainly latched onto the idea.

Former WA Premier Geoff Gallop highlighted how happiness is now more of a pre-packaged consumer good than an abstract goal, recognising that "the consumer society even has the capacity to absorb and co-opt that which seeks to transform it" in his 2009 piece for The Sydney Morning Herald, "The pursuit of happiness".

We confuse happiness, I think. We confuse it with satisfaction, with contentment, with joy, with pleasure.

The state of happiness often involves all of these abstracts, but there are important distinctions to be drawn in our understanding here.

Contentment, joy and pleasure, for example, are largely thought of as the result of our actions, the by-product, effect, of what we do.

We accept them as fleeting, temporary, enjoyable outcomes of the activities and work we undertake. However, we rarely focus on their pursuit.

In what is perhaps a cruel twist of fate, researchers have discovered that people who consciously pursue happiness are less likely to actually achieve it and the pursuit itself can undermine their wellbeing.

Happiness isn't a destination. It's not a place that you arrive at as a reward for hard work and purposeful activity. It's not "what you get" when you serve others or make a sacrifice.

Psychologists tell us there are two general categories of the concept of happiness: hedonic (the pursuit of pleasure over pain) and eudaimonic (the result of the pursuit and attainment of life purpose, meaning, challenge and personal growth).

Some psychologists believe chasing happiness is pointless, others believe it can be purposefully increased.

Ultimately, what makes us feel happy will likely change as we evolve throughout our lifespan and our ideas of contentment and joy will be sparked by different experiences as we age.

I have a rainbow theory of happiness.

People constantly trying to catch it are too busy chasing it to appreciate it when it's there. If we are constantly measuring our lives, deciding if we've "made it yet," what happens if we achieve our goals and we still don't feel that warm buzz of happiness we've been told about?

What happens if we've been working towards achieving a goal that we believe will result in the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, only to discover that the rainbow has moved again and we still haven't "arrived" at destination happiness?

If Aristotle was right and happiness is the primary purpose of human life, I think living our lives pursuing a state of being that is, by its very nature temporary, is a cruel joke of the gods.

To spend one's life chasing rainbows when one could take stock at any moment and revel in the beauty of the colours that light up the sky, is to miss the point entirely. Life is a series of moments.

Whatever your goals in your life are, pursue them for the journey. Happiness tends to capture us when we aren't looking.

Zoë Wundenberg is a careers consultant and un/employment advocate at impressability.com.au.