What if you stopped chasing happiness?What would happen if you let go of happiness as an explicit goal?
Let’s talk about revolution. The revolution from within. Here’s how it seems to be going down: We’re juicing and gentrifying and sending thoughts and prayers and filtering out the negativity and unfriending and floating through the world – world, what world? – in an artisan bubble we bought on Etsy¹.
Because all of us, it seems, just want to be happy, and in the most reductionist, bleedingly obvious, economic and utilitarian way: pleasure, no pain.
In order to be happy, we attempt to eliminate our pain points. Bad news; tragic world news; friends dragging you down with their drama (divorces and deaths and diagnoses: so pesky) and their abject failure to be wildly successful and very, very thin (your weight and your income are a function of five closest peeps, doncha know); irritating conversations on Facebook: it’s all the same and it’s all got to go.
Because we just want to be happy.
I want to be happy, too. But aiming straight at happy and conducting myself accordingly – pleasure, no pain – made me a monster.
Or rather, a ghost.
Paraphrasing a friend on Facebook: In my thirties, I could have taught a master class on ghosting. I avoided anything unpleasant, including the most basic activities associated with maturity and decency. Like, boundaries. Like, deadlines. Like, hard conversations about how I wronged you (frequently) or how you wronged me (less frequently).
Chasing the happiness didn’t make me happy. It made me an asshole.
We’ve got to start creating, caring, connecting, doing.
There’s a tsunami of research establishing this. People devoted to others and a higher purpose – people who don’t make their personal happiness their first duty – are happier than people who are not. People who are in community with each other and politically engaged – struggling, embattled activists! – are happier than the rest of us – and that’s revealing. Happiness isn’t a good. It’s a byproduct.
As are the stratospherically successful creators and entrepreneurs. (I’m talking about the innovators and game-changers, not simply the super-rich.)
It may well be that activists – our Audre Lordes, our Kings – and the extremely successful – our Jobs, our Musks – have something in common. People who’ve achieved extreme success are not chasing thappiness, either. They’re monomaniacally obsessed with creating something and maybe even something that changes the world.
Maybe they end up happy, maybe they don’t. But they’re probably pretty satisfied — and they create new cultural paths and possibilities for all of us.
Satisfied, of course, isn’t the right word.
One of my most treasured, pivotal memories – and core desired feelings – is this: As part of my honours thesis work, I was writing an essay on John Stuart Mill (son of James Mill. Papa Mill is the one who articulated the utilitarian concept of happiness I’m trying to disrupt) and wrestling with what I was trying to say. I was trying to articulate a jumbled ball of wool that I hadn’t yet seen anyone else unravel. I worked and worked and worked on it. For weeks, I worried it. One night I slept the way Wile E does when he dreams of Roadrunner and I awoke with the answer.
The essay was really, really good. Way better than it needed to be. It would have been an A without my hard-earned insight.
How I felt was bigger and better than happy.
It wasn’t as simple as happy. The essay was borne of internal struggle which is stressful and sucky and all-consuming. The process wasn’t terribly pleasurable. The end result was more than I needed to do to get approval or get by. If I’d just wanted to be happy, I would have got drunk and gone to the club.
Instead, I was thick with it, you know?
I made something good and started contributing to the infrastructure for something even better, for myself and for others similarly obsessed with my subject matter. We’re standing on each others shoulders, all of us, always.
That’s why we need to engage with what’s hard – and what’s wrong – instead of avoiding it.
That’s why lots of pleasure + no pain isn’t The Answer or a good guide to life. Not individually and especially not culturally and collectively. Writ large, it’s cultural ruin. If our first duty is to our own happiness, we’re not likely to put that fragile, fleeting equilibrium at risk for cause + community.
Let us consult the oracles, yes?
I’m talking about author + academic + unrepentant feminist killjoy Sara Ahmed and poet-warrior Audre Lorde…and more specifically, Sara Ahmed writing about Audre Lorde.
As Ahmed lays it out, Lorde straight-up demolished the pursuit of happiness in The Cancer Journals. She also advocated for self-care in A Burst of Light. To Lorde – and Ahmed – there’s no contradiction. Hedonistic happiness is simply not the same thing as self-care. Self-care is a revolutionary tactic while chasing happiness as a prime directive allows – nay, insists – that we opt out of working to change the world.
Let us seek ‘joy’ rather than real food and clean air and a saner future on a livable earth! As if happiness alone can protect us…”
Was I really fighting the spread of radiation, racism, woman-slaughter, chemical invasion of our food, pollution of our environment, and the abuse and psychic destruction of your young, merely to avoid dealing with my first and greatest responsibility to be happy?” – Audre Lorde
Essential to note: abandoning happiness as a goal doesn’t mean abandoning yourself.
It absolutely means giving yourself the care and nourishment you need to be equipped to confront hardship and challenge and do great work. (As Sara Ahmed explains, “This kind of self-care is not about one’s own happiness. It is about finding ways to exist in a world that is diminishing.”)
It means unleashing yourself.
What would happen if you let go of happiness as an explicit goal?
What would you be free to do?