One of the greatest lies of modern times is that happiness, like the Holy Grail, can be sought and – with the right formula, of course – found. Much of popular culture consists of some type of attempt to lure us into chasing the elusive rainbow of happiness, with promises of a pot of whatever we consider to be gold waiting at the end, if only we manage to crack the code.
We forget that the dreams they are selling are not designed to facilitate the consumers’ journeys to fulfilment, but rather to line the pockets of the constructors of those dreams. The plethora of self-help books that promise fool-proof paths to financial success, or an exercise-free way to lose useless weight (lop your head off, is my suggestion), or one easy step to finding true love, or that encourage you to embrace the inner turtle of mental health – are all really about the same thing: milking the gullible.
And we lap it all up. We redesign our lives to accommodate the recommendations of whichever self-proclaimed guru wrote the book/ hosted the video/ spoke at the staff team-building day (conveniently bringing boxloads of his latest 34-cd box set at a once-off discounted special price, only because your company has been so supportive of him), and when it doesn’t work as we naively expected it to, we are actually (touchingly) surprised. But we don’t blame the salesman; instead, we berate ourselves for not following the programme correctly.
And all the while Common Sense is sitting in the corner, shaking her head. She knows what should have been obvious to us all along: happiness – like the partner of the sock that went into the washing machine and never came out, or the lyrics to the tune that has been swimming in your head all day, and which are always just out of reach, on the tip of your tongue – can never be found when you actively seek it. You can only ever glimpse it when it catches you by surprise as you are focusing on something else entirely.
Happiness is transient. Like a butterfly, it alights briefly on the flower of your life, delighting momentarily, and then is gone. But what we demand of Happiness is something more durable. And that is why the Pursuit of Happiness can never be successful. Happiness is fleeting by nature.
Contentment, fulfilment – now those are altogether different. Happiness is dependent on external circumstances; fulfilment is determined by internal choices. I think we have them confused. What we are really looking for is fulfilment, not happiness.
Fulfilment can, I believe, only be found through an expression of interdependence in working towards a vision larger than any individual life. Fulfilment realises that – to use a Biblical analogy – we are a body. If I am the best eye that I can be, the whole body is better for it, but even if I am the best eye I can be, I am diminished if my legs or hands are useless. We can find fulfilment when we are both courageous enough to embrace the enormity of our individual potential and humble enough to realise our limitations; when we combine others’ greatness with our own to strive for an impossible dream.
And that’s the difference. The Pursuit of Happiness tells us that as long as we are all the eye we can be, that is enough. Maybe we just need to learn to see more clearly.