What is your goal in life? Ask your friend. They might say something like, “f–k b–ches, get money.” If they’re being sincere, however, and they’re well-adjusted, there’s a good chance that their answer will include something about happiness: to be happy, or to be as happy as possible as often as possible or to maximize the total net happiness in the world.
The last one was my goal for a while.
This goal of happiness is a noble one, and I think a lot of people aim for happiness knowing that anything material they aim for will ultimately be unsatisfying.
Happiness, however, is nothing but an emotion, and sustaining one emotion indefinitely is impossible. Even if it were possible, the hardships that we will all inevitably face throughout our lives will require other emotions to help us cope. Imagine a parent dying — would you want to meet that with happiness? You might have to go through a rough divorce, or lose a job you love or raise children who are utterly different than who you wanted them to be. You might get depression. There is a pretty good chance that your adulthood will be full of times when even long-term happiness is both elusive and nonsensical. To cope and to learn from your past, you will feel pain, sadness and anger, and it could last for weeks or months. Does this mean you’ve failed your life goal? Or that you have to keep waiting in order to achieve it?
One scientist defined happiness as the emotion experienced when “a goal is attained or maintained.” Using this definition, we will feel happy once we achieve our goal of feeling happy — insightful, right? It can be tempting to avoid thinking about how we’ll achieve happiness. If pressed, I would probably say that a fulfilling career and a loving family would be my key avenues to happiness. Aiming for a fulfilling career and loving family is a more concrete goal than merely aiming for happiness, but does that mean it’s better? Not necessarily.
Studies have found that in general, humans are bad at predicting how they will feel after future events because we fail to take our own personalities into consideration. If someone is already a grumpier-than-average person, they will most likely remain grumpy even after achieving their goals. Likewise, for someone who is already a cheerful person, research suggests they will quickly return to cheerfulness even after major disappointments. The best predictor of future happiness does not have anything to do with the events that take place in our lives. The best predictor of future happiness is past happiness.
Research also suggests that on average, people are happiest in their 20s and their 70s. Why 70s? Some have posited that by this age, most people are done working and done raising their family. They are no longer striving to achieve the things they wanted in life. Whether they accomplished everything they intended to or not, it isn’t until their seventies that many people finally stop waiting for future accomplishments to make them happy and allow themselves to enjoy life as it is.
As a 22 year old, this could mean I’ll wait most of my adult life just to be as happy as I am right now.
These studies could imply that the best way to achieve life happiness is to stop waiting for future events to make you happy and instead make the most of the moment you’re in. If you’re sticking with a goal of happiness, I think focusing on present moment happiness is the best approach. It is also important to deeply consider why you are sticking with a goal of happiness.
If I were reading this, by now I’d want to clarify that my life goal to be “happy” wasn’t referring to continually experiencing the emotion of happiness. Rather, by happiness, I mean a more existential contentment with life. This difference in language is hugely important because existential contentment will not come from clinging to happiness. The fact is that existential contentment can only come when you abandon clinging all together. Clinging to happiness is still clinging, which is both futile and unfulfilling.
I think it is important to have big-picture life goals, but I also think it is important to understand why we have those goals. If the goal of happiness will not make us happy, what should we aim for?
For me, a new life goal was in order. Instead of repressing my true emotions to feel “happy” all the time, I realized it’s better to let emotions run their course as if they were the weather. On a bad day I might have to carry an umbrella, but I won’t let that ruin the day. By learning more about how my mind works through practices like mindfulness, meditation, counseling, lucid dreaming and critically analyzing my belief systems, I am striving toward mental freedom. Freedom to feel my emotions without letting them define me — to enjoy experiencing all the love, surprise, sadness and fear in the world instead of a being prisoner, trapped in my head, endlessly searching for happiness in a lonely, skull-sized cell.
Karen Konkoly, ’17, is a columnist for The Brown and White. She can be reached at [email protected]