Photo credit: Jeephead, Creative Commons
Our culture is obsessed with the attainment of happiness. There are books, articles and movies which focus on how to find it, while the word is forever inscribed in the American constitution as one of its core features. Yes, the pursuit of happiness has surely been a hot topic since generations past.
Parents are often quoted as saying that the one thing they want for their children above all others, is happiness. It seems a reasonable thing to which one should aspire. Surely everyone has a right to find happiness in life?
So why then have I become convinced that we’ve been sorely misguided and that, in actual fact, we’re not meant to be happy?
Before you shout at the screen and determine that I’ve temporarily lost a few marbles, hear me out for just a couple of minutes.
Maybe I should begin by clarifying what I am not saying…
I’m not saying we shouldn’t engage in activities or pursue relationships that we love or enjoy, or make us feel happy.
I’m not saying we should be miserable in life and complain all the time.
I’m not saying we should sacrifice any and everything to only serve others and make them happy.
What I do believe is that there are seasons in life, times that fluctuate from great excitement to times of sadness or disappointment. To experience a range of human emotion is to be accepted as part of life and is built into our psyche; it’s good for us. Both the highs and lows of our lives bind us together with those with whom we share our souls. The highs would not be so precious if we had not also succumbed to the raging hardships of lows. How else could we possibly understand what others are going through if we only ever experienced elation?
To imagine that we should possibly feel happy all the time is verging on ludicrous. Even if all our desires and wishes were to come true, sooner or later we would experience loss – whether from death, or from separation (a friend or loved one moving on to pursue their happiness).
Research has shown that many grand lottery winners are not happier several years later. They have accrued everything they could ever want, been overwhelmed by luxury, and still they are unhappy about certain turn of events – such as loss of community or their former job. Many of them hanker after their old, simple life. It was less complicated then.*
As many have said before, I also would agree that joy and contentment are different entities. Despite a torrent of misfortune and negative life occurrences it is possible to choose to focus on a few good things and remain joyful or content with one’s lot. There’s always something to be thankful for.
The reason I’m convinced we are not meant to be in a perpetual state of happiness is this: We would cease aspiring to anything and we would achieve nothing of lasting legacy.
Imagine if William Wilberforce had been happy with the political status and standing in the community he had attained. Imagine if Michael Angelo had been happy to paint just one corner of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It’s precisely our unhappiness, our dissatisfaction with the way things are, that compels us into action and to pursue change in the situations around us. It’s in our time of discontent that we can be stirred to make a difference. It’s those who cannot sit back and revel in their wealth who go on to fight poverty, it’s those who see injustice and cannot rest oblivious in that knowledge who go on to help rescue those in dire need.
Even in our personal lives, unhappiness serves a purpose. When we are aware that our relationships are lacking or that our time is being frittered away on minor matters, we can heed that inner voice, that inner dissatisfaction and cause it to kick start change and remedy those areas which need attention. It’s unhappiness that also drives ambition, which has caused many a tea lady or busboy to reject their default station in life and work their way up the ranks of a company. It’s the years of being hard up that often motivate a young person to work hard and achieve more.
Unhappiness – or perhaps ‘restlessness’ might be a better word – is good for us, as long as it drives us to take action and make stepping stones of change. Only if we wallow in unhappiness will we regress and find ourselves pulled down into a pit of despair, causing us to go round in circles of mediocrity or spin in whirlwinds of negativity. There’s always something of value to aspire to, always a way we can turn a negative state into something positive. Often, all it takes is an acknowledgement that we can be part of a greater solution, that we then begin to focus on the bigger picture and are able to envision our future role in the world around us.
I’m reading a great book by Nick Vujicic at the moment, the motivational speaker who has no arms or legs. In Unstoppable he quotes Frederick Douglas, the American slave turned social activist, who said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” It struck me how we all make progress as a result of overcoming difficulty – difficulty, which at the time made us feel pretty unhappy.
Next time you feel unhappy, ask yourself what you could be a part of to effect major change. There are situations you’ve endured that have led you precisely to this point. Your experience might prove invaluable to a life changing movement or could propel you into a key role. If nothing else, your character has been shaped and developed as a result of the tough times. Character doesn’t tend to be developed during seasons of happiness.
If Jesus had been happy sitting around having tea at Mary and Martha’s or helping his friends reel in big catches of fish all day, he would not have got riled up about the Pharisees’ hypocrisy or driven out the money changers in the temple. He could have relaxed on the sea of Galilee telling stories for the rest of his life. Instead, Jesus didn’t settle in one place; he was led to different towns where he could affect and influence different crowds. He didn’t shy away from challenging people or situations.
Maybe we are supposed to get upset or deeply uncomfortable about some things affecting our world. Perhaps we should consciously stir our unhappiness towards something productive or worth changing. In that way we can actually be the conduit of good news to others, making a positive difference in the lives and circumstances around us. I, for one, want to be an active participant in making my life count for something. And if that means that I’m frequently in a state of restlessness, so be it.
*See this article about unhappy lottery winners.