Happy, ready or not!

Now this is interesting…because we all want to be happy, right? On top of the world? And if you’re not tapping your feet or dancing to this link, then you’re in need of some serious assistance…

Happiness (according to an online dictionary, so it must be true) is:

Feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.

Having a sense of confidence in or satisfaction with (a person, arrangement, or situation).

This may explain where I’m going wrong in life because I always thought that happy required more than simply being ‘satisfied’.people-2567915__340

At university, friends and I would sit around for hours into the night discussing the meaning of life, assuming that meaning meant happiness.  

Not sure if we ever reached any conclusions but we enjoyed the conversations.

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It must still go on but I rarely hear younger people questioning it; perhaps they are too busy enjoying the hedonistic mindfulness of life  I do hear plenty of middle years people asking: ‘is this all there is?’ which seems like an extension of the same idea they tackled when younger. Maybe it is a generational thing?

So, is this it? And what is the meaning of life? (We maybe need to address these before happiness even enters the equation).

I still don’t know the answer to the latter and I suspect the answer to the former is ‘yes’ unless one is prepared to change – and that’s loaded and difficult because change requires an admission that something is not quite right and requires action – eek, scary proactive, disruptive, disturbing stuff…

Is this it? implies a sense of dissatisfaction, unhappiness or just a general grudging acceptance of the ‘ok, but nothing special’ situation. It is actually what most people survive on, on a daily basis.

But, is all this quest for meaning – and even happiness – merely setting ourselves up for failure and frustration? Maybe gratitude, thankfulness and acceptance would make us more contented?

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Try Mindfulness

It’s one of those words that we are all using right now. Should we simply be living in the moment and developing ‘mindfulness’, not looking back, nor forward, for life’s satisfaction? Love life, live in the now, love where you live, what you have, stop wanting and yearning…all very mindful…

Mindfulness is hot stuff in pop psychology at the moment and draws from eastern philosophies such as Buddhism, Yoga, and Taoism. It involves paying attention to the here and now, embracing the moment with interest, receptivity and openness, in a non-judgemental way. It is thought to reduce stresses, so it sounds lovely. We should all be practising it.  It also rather feels like taking a tiny portion of Buddhism and doing it to death through meditation. But to reach this state of ‘nirvana’ really takes time and effort. Most of us are not easily ‘mindful’ when faced with the everyday practicalities of earning a crust and getting through the day-to-day.

That said, if you accept your situation and do not question it but instead embrace it, then discontent should presumably reduce. But is that happiness, or mere acceptance? Because acceptance seems a long way from happiness, and even from meaning.

Mid-Life Crisis?

Or is all this concern with ‘happiness’ merely mid-life crisis? A mid-life crisis was a term coined by Canadian psychoanalyst, Elliot Jaques, back in 1965; the stereotype is that it mainly affects men who suddenly yearn for women in short skirts while driving fast cars; women suddenly wish to be free of their shackles. Midlife, Jaques reckoned, is the time when adults realise they are no longer invincible and that their own mortality is kicking in. Time is running out, in other words, so if you’ve not cracked ‘the meaning of life’ or at least a semblance of ‘happiness’ by now, then panic (understandably) starts to kick in.

How to find out more? Try Logotherapy…

Well, it makes sense – to me – that someone who has suffered extreme circumstances, and a threat to their very existence, must have some idea about what life means. Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist, survived life in Auschwitz, but his family sadly did not. In 1946, based on his experiences, he wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning”  thus gleaning some hope from an abysmal situation, using logotherapy.

He expressed the view that we can choose our attitude, and that resilience makes survival more likely. He felt that consciousness of responsibility kept some people alive in that concentration camp, once the shock and hopelessness had done their worst. The basic principles of logotherapy are:

Life has meaning whatever the circumstances, even in miserable existences.

Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life.

Even in the most extreme circumstances, we have the freedom to find meaning (but not fulfilment or happiness) in what we do, and what we experience. I rather like this one because regardless of anyone else, we choose how to feel.

Happiness here becomes secondary to meaning. Happiness, he felt, was not something that could be pursued; it must ensue. In essence, there must be a reason for it to happen. But to some extent, he is focusing on what we would today call mindfulness, living in the present moment. Seeking out happiness doesn’t guarantee great results for there are no guarantees for the future.

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Is the ‘meaning of life’ the wrong question?

Philosopher, Julian Baggini, says that we will never get a sensible answer to the ‘meaning of life’ question because it is not a sensible question. It needs some deconstructing. Bear in mind that this quote is from 2004, but Baggini says:

“I never thought I would say this, but in this very particular sense, life is like a Celine Dion concert: if we want to know why we are here, we can look backwards or forwards, and the answers we get, or fail to get, are very different and satisfy different needs.”

Why ARE We Here? Why Not?

A quick trawl of Google shows that 4 out of 10 Americans either feel they have no life purpose or feel neutral. They feel “there must be more to life than this” whatever this is. They appear to be seeking happiness or meaning; either will do.

According to evolutionary theorists, happiness is apparently about drive reduction or maybe a better term would be drive fulfilment. This maybe explains why a trip to the beach makes my dogs unashamedly happy. They run, fetch a ball and play = happiness. Simple.

So, if we humans work out what drives us (and that may be individual) then perhaps drive fulfilment is the answer (assuming it isn’t just out and out hedonism again).

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Friendship

Happy!

Now, some people feel that happiness is found in community-spiritedness, altruism, and I’ve bought into that,  many times, yet investing in ‘the bigger picture’  apparently tends to cause more stress and anxiety. Doing things for others does not provide that meaning that we’d like to think it does. Probably because it gives us less time to focus on our own needs.

Having children is a good example of this. Harvard psychologist and world expert on ‘affective forecasting’  (predicting one’s future emotional state) Daniel Gilbert, apparently uncovered that most parents are happier when watching TV or going for a run, rather than interacting with their children, perceived as most definitely ‘not fun’. Shocking though this is,  I can see where he is coming from….

Let’s face it, watching your child do averagely at sport, playing musical bumps at a party, murdering a musical instrument, or acting in a nativity play may be all kinds of things, but ‘fun’ it most generally is not.

So after that little journey of exploration, I’m none the wiser about meaning, mindfulness, or happiness. And probably thus no nearer to achieving any of it. However, I feel that good relationships with others come into it, through meaningful friendship and interaction. 300 Facebook friends do not make us happy. 4 or 5 real friends definitely add to the capacity for it. 

However, as Baggini says:

“Something only seems to be missing because you’re expecting much more”

which takes me back to the idea I had as a teenager that life on earth was hell because people were doomed to a sense of always wanting more or different, life consists of dissatisfaction. Maybe if we can all be satisfied with less, it will indeed be more.

Or just maybe reincarnating as a dog is the answer?

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