The Pursuit of Happiness
The pursuit of happiness seems to be a big deal. Bookshelves and magazines fill volumes with the topic. Even our founding fathers thought it rated a line in the Declaration of Independence. It is part of our natural instinct to pursue happiness. The same way we seek to experience physical pleasure and avoid physical pain, we seek emotional pleasure, and attempt to avoid emotional pain. Our emotional enjoyment, or what we can call happiness, is simply part of human nature.
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How pervasive is the pursuit of happiness and emotional well being? It is one of the all encompassing motivations that people have once they meet their survival needs. Abraham Maslow pointed this out a long time ago in his hierarchy of needs. When a person is physically comfortable and no longer driven by fear of starving or freezing to death, emotional pleasure becomes a primary pursuit. Happiness may take many forms but it is the underlying motivator in most our decisions.
Even with a natural instinct, constitutional approval and our best efforts, it seems all too easy to create emotional chaos and unhappiness instead. How does this pursuit of happiness get so distorted and take us in the wrong direction at times? While it is easy to discern between the physical sensations of pleasure and pain, emotions are not always direct. We often have a layer of beliefs in the mind that tend to complicate our sense of enjoyment and pursuit of happiness.
Think about shopping for clothes. Unless we are buying a uniform or a necessary item, we generally buy clothes that we believe will enhance our appearance. When we believe that we look attractive, we feel happier. How we look is just a means to improve how we feel emotionally. We make purchases because we feel good, or assume we will feel good with that purchase. The assumed impact on emotions is the principle motivator behind our decisions.
When we buy a car we want to feel good about the purchase. Feeling good is the end result we seek but there are many paths to get there. One person may worry about safety concerns with children in the car. In order to feel better emotionally they buy a large SUV. Another person may have strong beliefs about the environment and feels better when they satisfy these beliefs. They might buy a hybrid car. A third person may be frugal with their money and think it’s stupid to pay full price for anything. Not wanting to fall into their own belief criteria of being stupid, they buy a used car. Each person’s means to feeling happy about their choice is a completely different path in car buying.
The pursuit of happiness, or feeling emotionally good about the choice, is the principle motivator that was met with three different means. Each person has different assumptions and beliefs they have to meet in order to get to that emotion. For these people it isn’t the car or the clothes that makes them happy. They feel better because they have satisfied the beliefs in the mind. Each person’s emotional happiness is behind a barrier of criteria. If they can meet the criteria in their mind they will reward themselves with pleasurable emotions, at least in the short run. Later, their beliefs may change and then they have to go shopping again.
For the SUV owner maybe it wasn’t so much about being happy as just keeping their fear based thoughts at bay with a bigger car. Remember that a large part of feeling good in the mind is about avoiding what we believe feels painful, or potentially painful. This includes using compensating strategies like a large car to keep emotionally painful fears and beliefs at a distance. Compensating strategies don’t eliminate the fear based beliefs, but people rely on them a lot to keep their fears managed.
Where do most people go to satisfy their pursuit of happiness? They try to satisfy the criteria in their mind that tells them what they have to do in order to feel good. That might also mean doing things to compensate for fears and beliefs of something painful happening. The end goal is happiness and all the beliefs, fears, assumptions, and perceptions in the mind dictate the path. You can find these beliefs hiding behind thoughts or comments like, “Ill be happy when…” or, “I would feel much better if..”
In the pursuit of physical enjoyment we get direct feedback. With emotional enjoyment we often have a barrier of beliefs and assumptions filtering our efforts.
Is there a problem in seeking happiness according to assumptions and beliefs? Not really, unless you have followed the criteria in the mind and your pursuit led to unhappiness. Is it possible that what our mind assumes will make us happy isn’t 100% accurate? Disillusioned career choices, broken hearted relationships, and mid-life crisis indicate that our assumptions about happiness often miss the mark. Most of what we have imbedded in our mind about what makes us happy and unhappy comes from other people or marketing agencies and doesn’t address our individual inspirations.
There are other problems with the approach of chasing the mental assumptions of what will make us happy. What happens when our mind tells us what we have to do to be happy but we haven’t met the mental criteria yet? Suppose we believe we will be so much happier if we lose 15 lbs. Our mind can set up the paradigm to be less happy with our body because we haven’t met the requirements for being happy yet. When we let our belief system determine the criteria for being happy, we also unconsciously define more reasons to be unhappy.
What if the mind’s criteria for feeling better emotionally are dependent on things we can’t control? Perhaps we want a promotion, or recognition at work. We can certainly do things to help our case but we can’t make someone promote us or appreciate us. Our mind now uses these external factors as justifications to conclude that we are not as happy as we could be. We end up unhappy because we can’t change external circumstances. If we don’t change the criteria in our mind we miss our opportunity for happiness.
Our pursuit to feeling better and happier has turned into a struggle to get recognized and promoted. Not because it will really make us happier directly, but because our belief system has set this as the means to an emotional end. We might very well get the promotion, a raise, and recognition only to find out we are not filled with joy. Our pursuit of happiness has turned into a pursuit of assumptions in our belief system. The problem here is that we bought into our false beliefs as being true.
If we aren’t aware of how belief structures limit happiness we are likely to try and change external factors in order to be happy. Trying to change factors we can’t control can lead to us feeling frustrated and powerless.
Achieving and creating happiness generally isn’t accomplished the way the mind thinks it happens. Some people are able to pursue their assumptions and satisfy their belief system in their mind. They consider this success and feel good about their accomplishment. This doesn’t work for everyone. Some people are able to feel happy by satisfying their beliefs. But then their beliefs change and they end up chasing new assumptions thinking it will make them feel better. After a while they get tired of the chase or disheartened because the happiness is not lasting. Some people attempt to satisfy the beliefs in their mind all their life and still never feel fulfilled. Maybe their mind moves the target before they get there. Or maybe, just maybe, there is a greater happiness and fulfillment to be experienced than just satisfying criteria in the mind or compensating for its fears.
The pursuit of happiness is real. It is an authentic and natural desire of our nature. For those that feel a deep emotional yearning, simply meeting the criteria of beliefs about what is supposed to make us feel good doesn’t satisfy this yearning. At a deeper level it becomes about the heart’s desire, or satisfying something at the level of the soul. Answering these desires is much more meaningful and emotionally fulfilling than satisfying the beliefs in the mind.
To create, and live in authentic happiness, you will need to learn not to blindly chase the false beliefs in the mind. You will have to pay closer attention to the end goal of emotion and not jump after the first idea the mind offers as a means to get there. When we go after happiness by satisfying the belief system we have taken our eye off the goal and become attached to assumptions and beliefs in the mind.
A new car, clothes, or losing 15 lbs is just a means to an emotion based on a belief. A belief can change and then the emotion shifts. When you don’t have a handle on your beliefs, becoming happy is a moving target that is likely to get away from you.
The pursuit of happiness is a part of our personal constitution and make up as a living being. It is every human’s birthright and it is within every person’s possibility to achieve. To be successful in your pursuit of happiness you will need to dissolve the assumptions and criteria in the mind that interfere with authentic happiness.
In this article I’ve covered what doesn’t make for lasting happiness. In our pursuit of happiness it is important to recognize which paths are illusions and dead ends. A completely different approach to being happy is to create happiness.