The Pursuit of Happiness

wellbeing mindmap
My well-being mindmap, based on self-management actions I took after contracting chronic ulcerative colitis in 2006

On Saturday I pointed you to an old (2001) article by John Perry Barlow on the foolishness of our relentless pursuit of happiness — which for modern humans so often means the pursuit of more material wealth, the pursuit of escapist drugs and other entertainments, the pursuit of the perfect body, face, mind and/or appendage, the constant search for positive self-improvement, and the paranoid fear and avoidance of those things we are taught to fear and avoid (which are usually all the wrong things).

Barlow quotes Swami Satchidananda:

If you run after things, nothing will come to you. Let things run after you. The sea never sends an invitation to the rivers. That’s why they run to the sea. The sea is content. It doesn’t want anything. That’s the secret in life.

So, Barlow says, rather than pursuing happiness we should just pursue our business, be who we are and do what we were meant to do, and just open ourselves to the possibility of happiness, and let it find us. Citing the happiness of Africans (and I would add Latin Americans) he says that happiness is most often a collective feeling that comes from collective accomplishment and collective comfort, rather than one that comes from individual pursuits. That would tend to rule out the pursuit of wealth and possessions, which is often comparative and competitive. It’s also consistent with studies that have showed that violence and unhappiness are highest in places where the Gini Index of wealth inequality is highest (notably despotic struggling nations and the US).

To Barlow, the best ways to open oneself to happiness are through realizing one’s personal purpose, through creativity, through service to others, through awareness (what we now call presence), and through loving (but, I would add, not through being loved, which is what most of us seem to seek so desperately, in our anxious and incessant pursuit of attention and appreciation). A most admirable list, but one that to me seems quite onerous. Surely, I thought as I read his essay, there must be an easier approach.

I often find myself wishing I had more time for all the things I’d like to do, but I rarely find myself unhappy doing any of the things I do. I like where I live and what I do and who I do it with. The only things that stress me, these days, are the too many things that I’ve (foolishly, but that’s no consolation) promised to do that haven’t been done, and the still-frequent feeling that I’m letting people down. Behind all this, always, lies my unbearable grief for Gaia, but I’ve mostly stopped stressing about things I can’t fix, so except when it hits close to home (for example, when I witness personally suffering or an act of cruelty or another manifestation of how royally our species has fucked up this world) I’ve learned to take it in stride.

To me happiness is not wanting anything, and ridding yourself of the chores and obligations that you hate, and taking on just the right amount of things that they can all be done well, comfortably and joyfully. I recognize that, in the modern world, for many it is impossible to rid themselves of chores and obligations, and I grieve for those people, and am thankful I am not them. But I suppose in the end I am not the Hanged Man, not the exhausted self-sacrificing person I once thought I was intended to be. I don’t think I have ever been happier just filling every day with being myself and doing the things that I love and which have meaning to me, things for the most part I’ve learned to do well, but still love practicing so I can become even better at them. Doing things that are, to my astonishment and in unpredictable ways, somehow useful to others as well. That makes me really happy.

I am just the space through which stuff passes, a part of the unfathomably complex dance of all-life-on-Earth. A part of that dance, it seems to me, is learning to improvise which of that passing-through stuff to touch, and which to just let go. It’s not a choice, so much as a knowing, a collective and connected knowing, an instinctive and sensual knowing. “Ah, I know how I can make this better, or clearer, or more interesting, or more useful, or more innovative, or more fun — there!” Like the expert who just knows, from practice, where the puck or ball is going to be, I’m learning, perpetually, to be there, to do that stuff I do that helps just a little bit, to know what to do and to have fun doing it.

The wild creatures whose world I increasingly share understand this well, and it will take a lifetime of practice to become half as wise as they are in the arts of living, and making a living, and being of use, and being happy, without even trying. Just being the space, and touchingthe right stuff in just the right way as it passes through.

Category: Let-Self-Change
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3 Responses to The Pursuit of Happiness

  1. Anil says:

    Not competing aggressively for things over and beyond basic necessity will usher in more happiness than we thought possible.Competing for prestige, status, visibility, respect, pride, ego all contribute in their ways to making the effort a ‘pursuit’.

  2. Irmeli Aro says:

    Re CCK08 – just for info I’m getting reorganized at WordPress – link corrected to this msg. My Blogger account had been – due to unknown reason – totally deleted yesterday. See you online :) Irmeli

  3. Irmeli says:

    A new try with another e-mail – the web site seemed to update acc. to my previous comment..

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