The Paradox Of Happiness

Cover of "The Big Chill (15th Anniversary edition)

Cover via Amazon

Early in the film, The Big Chill, the girlfriend (played by Meg Tilly) of the character whose funeral the others are attending, is asked if he seemed happy. This puzzles her. “I don’t know any happy people,” she replies. “What are they like?”

Interesting question, particularly in light of the growth industry that the desire for happiness supports in our culture. From its enshrinement in our Constitution as an “inalienable right” (sharing equal billing with Life and Liberty), the Pursuit of Happiness has expanded, as a concept, to the extent that it now undergirds much of our economic, philosophical, political–and most recently, and amazingly–spiritual foundations. With the urgency and single-mindedness of an Olympian event, it’s a pursuit in which everyone seems to be taking part, with dozens of well-paid coaches shouting encouragement from the sidelines.

Not that this is a new, or particularly American phenomenon. Long before Ben Franklin and Poor Richard’s Almanac–starting a procession that stretches from Emerson and Thoreau to Norman Vincent Peale and Tony Robbins–theologians and sages of all beliefs offered guidelines for personal fulfillment. From Lao Tze to Goethe, from the Greeks to the Sufis, across eons and oceans have come the many vaunted rules, or  practices assuring happiness. (Even Freud, in the midst of forming his sober-minded view of the human condition, offered a modest, though cogent, prescription for happiness: love and work.)

Throughout recorded history, mankind has yearned for and struggled to find happiness. What is particularly American, however, is the burgeoning therapies, workshops, seminars, infomercials and seasonal “how-to” bestsellers promising to reveal the secrets of joy and fulfillment. Every month, it seems, a new guru of personal growth appears. A new Primer on Perfection arrives. A new Handbook for Happiness.

And yet, why does that scene from The Big Chill resonate so much with viewers? Why do so many Americans seem to be unhappy?

It’s a paradox that literally baffles the rest of the world. The citizens of the wealthiest, most technologically advanced country in the world spend billions trying to alleviate their unhappiness. We take pills, join cults, go to spas, meditate, get advanced degrees, get cable, get rolfed, hypnotized, liposuctioned, bio-feedbacked, and–when all else fails–get stoned.

What’s going on here?

Whenever I think about happiness, I think about Nepal. I lived there for awhile, a number of years ago, as a result of what can regrettably only be called a mid-life crisis. I seemed to be spinning out of control, both personally and professionally, so I fled, like a character in Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, to the austere and ageless Himalayas.

This was before the recent political upheavals, when Nepal–the fifth poorest nation on earth–was still under the divine rule of the King, believed by the people to be an avatar of Vishnu (and, incidentally, one of the world’s richest men). I was struck by the staggering poverty and want, particularly in the rural areas, exacerbated in modern times by the exodus to Katmandu of most of the outlying villages’ young people. They’d begun leaving farm life for the many new service industry jobs in the city–taxi driving, waiting tables, working in tourist hotels.

But what really struck me, in this small country where 99% of the people were subsistence farmers, and where the children’s mortality rate was 50% before the age of seven, was one powerful, irrefutable fact: the people were happy.

This fact was a constant topic of conversation among us American visitors, tourists, journalists and longtime expatriates. We sat in cafes, eating dal baht and drinking Chinese beer, marveling at this seeming contradiction. Especially since we were all so…well…unhappy.

There was Diane, whose husband was a Peace Corps engineer building dams for the government. She was bored and restless.

There was Bill, a low-level diplomatic envoy. His goal was the embassy in China, instead of this “go-nowhere mud-pen.”

There was Evan, a so-called “trust fund kid,” whose recent trekking experience had proved disappointing (“bad weather and lazy porters”), and who couldn’t wait for ski season in Vail.

“I’ve gotta get my shit together,” someone always said. “If only I could…” Fill in the blank: Get another job. Get laid. Get divorced. Lose twenty pounds. Find time for my painting. Save some money. Meet someone.) “Then–then–I’d be happy…”

Meanwhile, all around us, making pujas to their many gods, doing laundry, carrying baskets, cooking rice, where the Nepalis. Smiling. Not the smiles of “simple, happy, natives,” like in some cheap travel brochure. It had more to do with belonging, with a sense of righteousness, a contentment forged out of an understanding of the sorrows and joys of their hard lives.

In short, unlike us, they didn’t need things to be…otherwise.

Is that all it takes? I’ve wondered more than once in the many years since Nepal. If, as Stephen Levine says, suffering is caused by wanting things to be other than they are, is happiness mere acceptance? Indeed, many of the world’s religions suggest that contentment, even bliss, is the result of accepting the reality of what is.

Where, then, does the Pursuit of Happiness fit in? To think about that, you have to explore what’s being pursued, and how.

The American ethic, with us since the Founding Fathers, distilled through such unlikely compatriots as William James, Walt Whitman, Andrew Carnegie, Jack London and Teddy Roosevelt, stresses happiness as an individual pursuit, the product of one’s own striving and achievements. This is not about “work,” in the sense of mastery, from which we derive self-esteem and a sense of satisfaction, but instead denotes a finite goal, a “state of happiness” which is somehow attained as a result of this individual achievement. And since achievement in a consumerist culture is measured by the acquisition of goods and influence, happiness–the state of happiness–is a clearly defined destination.

However, since in this same consumerist culture wealth and technology create ever-widening fields of goods and influence to be acquired, the destination keeps moving ahead of one’s efforts, just out of reach. So you must try harder, make more money, buy more things, live in better neighborhoods, lose more weight, attain higher office, etc.

This accounts for the fact that workaholics are, in fact, rarely happy. Though they may be doing work they like, often the goal is not the work itself, but rather perceived feelings of success and a gratification of one’s identity as important or effective in the world. Unfortunately, if the cultural environment is unable to provide these good feelings, the attempt to attain them by working harder proves fruitless.

The main problem with the pursuit of happiness is that it’s perceived as a pursuit at all. If we’re in pursuit of something “out there,” ahead of us in some imagined future, then we’re out of touch with the here-and-now, the only place where our feelings are actually situated. We can imagine being happy in some future time (when we’ve accomplished the goal of that job promotion, the novel published, Oscar nomination, etc.), but this momentary elation fades at the prospect of the distance between here and there, in terms of time and effort.

On the other hand, if we opt for mere acceptance of the here-and-now, for the reality of what is, of what use are our dreams, hopes and fantasies?

Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle. William Barrett, in his book The Illusion of Technique, stresses the importance of balancing the tension between doing and being. That without being, an acute awareness of the here and now, we lose an appreciation of the moment–feelings, perceptions, bodily sensations–that keep us grounded in the human experience. Yet without doing, initiating actions and exerting effort upon the world, our sense of personal effectiveness and will dwindles and dies.

How, then, can action–the doing of things, the striving toward goals–be wedded with an acceptance of the here-and-now? How can the journey be not toward the prize, or some imagined future happiness, but into presence?

A Hindu sage, when asked the secret of contentment, answered in one word: absorption. George Leonard, in his book Mastery, speaks of the pleasure to be found in the full-hearted practice of a skill, whether a martial art or playing the piano or being in a relationship. The sculptor Henry Moore talks of the joy of dedicating one’s life to something whose chief virtue is that it’s impossible to do.

What these points of view have in common is the notion of ego, individual effort, surrendered to something larger than itself. That rather than hoping that happiness will be attained as reward for out effort, happiness is seen as a natural, continuing state arising out of the effort itself. What Jung referred to as “loving the struggle.”

What if happiness were conceived of not as a goal or permanent state, but as a context, created out of a person’s active engagement in something larger than him or herself? We’ve all had the experience of “losing” ourselves in a spirited game, or a particularly involving task, even one that might ordinarily seem difficult or onerous.

(I recently had the experience of helping a farmer in Minnesota replace the muffler on an ancient tractor. Jim and I battled the rusted and heat-welded bolts for hours, sweating and straining, muttering encouragement and disparagement to each other, until the damned thing was repaired and running like a top. I stood on a side bumper, beaming like an idiot, as Jim did a victory lap around the field. I can’t remember the last time I was that happy.)

I’m thinking too of a man I met in New York’s infamous “Hell’s Kitchen” a number of years ago. An earnest recent college graduate, he led a citizen’s group trying to reclaim this notoriously poverty-stricken and crime-ridden area from the drug dealers and gangs.

Like a cliché in every TV movie about self-empowerment and the achievements of common people working together, Ed and his underpaid staff fought the drug dealers, the cops, the slum landlords and an uncaring city bureaucracy to reclaim tenement buildings, renovate them and create decent public housing. This with no funding, no resources, wholesale public skepticism, and frequent attempts on their lives. I’ll never forget sitting in the lobby of a recently-cleared tenement, buckets and scaffolding all around, eating take-out from cardboard boxes. Ed talked so excitedly he barely chewed his food, and his eyes shone.

What it comes down to, in the end, is love. If love is surrender of the ego to connection–any connection, whether to a person, a skill, a belief, a cause–then perhaps the willed engagement in that connection, preferably one whose scope is larger than oneself, produces happiness. The book you’re writing, the homeless shelter you’re building, the child you’re raising.

Framed in this way, happiness is released from enslavement to our fervid imaginings of the future. It’s no longer delayed until we finally get in shape, win the lottery, find the perfect mate, move to the country, etc. Instead, happiness is a process continually renewed in the here-and-now, a feeling that arises as a result of our heartfelt engagement in a task, often experienced as larger than ourselves, that we love for its own sake.

Which brings us back to that scene from The Big Chill, and an answer to Meg Tilly’s question about what happy people are like. It turns out they’re like Ed, fighting an uphill battle in the bowels of Hell’s Kitchen, and seemingly wanting to be nowhere else. That must be the reason I think of him so often.

After all, next to a Nepalese child with no arms that I met in Bir Hospital outside Katmandu, Ed was the happiest person I’ve ever known.


First published in August, 1994, the Whole Life Times, P.O. Box 1187, Malibu, CA. 90265.

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