what is happiness?

A guestpost by Chad Davis

Like anybody else, I’ve known my fair share of unhappy people, including myself. Many of my own friends have and still do suffer from depression or anxiety or both, barely scraping by their lives in what they feel is nothing more than a miserable existence caught between a painful birth and an inevitable death. It’s like a vagueness, depression is, wherein even the most powerful optimism can be lulled to a slow and cunning sleep, numbed by the quiet and darker emotions of the soul. But why the sadness? Why does one become depressed, or better yet – in order to avoid sounding like a fraud – what is it that one thinks they don’t have that would allow them to be happy?

There is a problem that runs deeper than any other in our human psyches. A problem that has existed ever since the dawn of our intellectual maturation. It is a simple problem – so simple, in fact, that we can’t see it without staring into nothing for hours on end, which is why Zen Buddhism even exists at all or why Catholic monasteries are beautifully and impeccably drab.

That problem is this: I think therefore I am.

One does not become who he is based on genetics or upbringing alone. There is a matter of choice in which we all partake everyday. After all, how else would so many born and raised within religious families turn their backs to their once beloved faith? Sure, sometimes they are operating out of anger or are over-zealous of a new religion, but for the most part – at least, so I’ve found among those of my friends who fit into such a category – the reason is simply because they chose to abandon such ideologies in light of newfound knowledge. They thought differently and therefore became something else than what they were. In other words, they changed.

Change is an intriguing phenomena in that without it a diamond would not sparkle, yet with it such a timeless jewel will age and condense into its more stable form of granite. Change is the mercurial substance of everything, and yet we cannot seem to grasp it in its fullness intellectually. Physically speaking however, this is so banal it is not worth bothering the mind in understanding any further. I mean, do YOU make your heart beat? Just how much of your day do YOU make sure that YOU are still alive? There is no reason for such nonsense as the very billions of tinier organisms, cells, DNA, RNA, bacteria, viruses, and atoms that make up the physical and therefore real composition of yourself are actively changing constantly, without end (mating – birth – life – sickness – old age – death – decomposition – melding with Earth’s soil – growing into a flower – being eaten by a rabbit – and on and on and on…). Change is so interesting because we are the embodiment of change. We are already dead, living, have lived, will die, and will continue to exist in some facet or another. Forever.

So what is the problem? It is that I think that I am not change. I think I should last forever. I identify not with what I am – the spark of life that is this body which grows these weird, amazing thoughts and feelings – but instead I identify with my nouns, adjectives, and pronouns. I think I am the nothing but the idea of what I am, which is precisely where all our other problems originate (I was wronged by him, therefore we must go to war; I loved her too much to let her go, so I tried to commit suicide; I owed him money, so I fled the city; He killed my brother, therefore I am justified in killing his son). The idea of the self as a designation outside and separate of everything actually doesn’t exist at all. You create it with your mind, which is why the thought of death looming around the corner doesn’t scare your body – it only scares your self.

However, I’m not trying to teach an expedited version of Buddhism; this is merely a foundation to which we can compare the problem of happiness.

Much like our belief that we are we and not the happenings of wind and clay, happiness has been confused with more immediate sensations of pleasure, bliss, or joy. However, can you feel happiness, or rather do you associate it with a feeling that makes you describe your current state as happy? It is a weird way to think about happiness, but it points us in the right direction. Does being happy make you happy, or are you already happy for some other reason? What’s the reason? Do you feel good, or lucky, or on top of the world? Does happiness beget the sensation or does the sensation beget the happiness?

It is an infinite rabbit hole, one that unravels the further you go down it. Therefore it is important to remember what I said earlier about our human folly, that thinking one thing as something completely changes what that thing is. For many, happiness is success, winning, becoming wealthy, having love in their life, and on the list goes. But is a dollar bill inherently exuding happiness? Of course not. A dollar bill could become something entirely painful or illicit. It could ooze distrust, hatred, greed, sexual deviance, or addiction. Clearly, happiness is not the same as the thoughts of what it is.

But if it isn’t that, then what is happiness?

It is at this point that it seems one cannot have happiness without already being happy, therefore one may just as well throw their hands up in failure. However the person giving up has failed to see that happiness is just an idea that consequently cannot be obtained. One cannot have an abstraction because by definition it is mercurial and unable to be caught and contained, like smoke. Happiness is such an abstraction—it isn’t real. What people seem to be chasing is the idea of finding joy in the moment at hand which is indeed going on, otherwise people would just enjoy what is happening right now. Instead, the TV, occasional drug abuse provide, or planning for that future moment when then you will finally have made it provides adequate distractions the otherwise painful reality.

Of course I’m being darkly satirical, but it remains evident that happiness is pedestalized for no reason. The word itself is just the noun of enjoying one’s happenstances, therefore it isn’t anything more than a lingual representation of the related emotion. To make such a hollowed object the end-all-be-all state of a person’s life is a drastic mistake because it drains the action of partaking in every moment of now and turns it into just another goal, sapping its genuineness away like a leech. We distract ourselves from the simple reality of life with all of this nonsense of finding happiness, achieving your inner zen, or obtaining salvation. Do you know what the common thread of all those examples is? We already have them, we’ve just forgotten that basic truth.

To speak practically about the matter, you were happy the day you came out of this world. When you were born you were a clean slate of joy and amazement of literally everything—it’s only when you were given something to be upset about, or rather showed to be upset at something, when you forgot that you were and still are happy all along. You might ask how this may be, but the answer has already been explained quite thoroughly. Happiness is the word to describe your perception of the world happening around you, therefore it isn’t an obtainable item or state of mind that can be coerced back into your being.

Happiness just happens.

And the real perplexing irony that I’ve never hear explained is that if you try to be happy you’ll be miserable, and if you don’t try to be happy you’ll be laughing with you face pointing towards the sky. Why this is is impossible to say, but analogies are useful tools for such occasions, this one especially…

The happiest man is not the one who has everything but the one who owns nothing. For, the man who has everything does not realize the secret of the man who owns nothing: that nothing is to be had because you are already in ownership of it. You are the possessor, keymaster, and witness to your own happiness. All it takes is time and the commitment to see the world as half-full rather than half-empty.

And that, really, is just a choice.

About the Author

Chad is a video editor, writer, philosophy enthusiast, and (quite recently) an indie game developer. Learn more about this multidimensional (or perhaps just plain mental) storyteller at www.ChadleyDavis.net.

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