We are all familiar with an ideal intrinsic to the nation’s identity, “the pursuit of happiness.” Since this phrase, coined by John Locke1, became popularized in the late 18th century, its become something the US culture has deemed a right. Even when the pursuit of happiness seems unachievable, there is a notion that you should keep seeking it. This is represented in media and marketing at a rampant rate. Try entering “Happiness” to any search engine for books, you will be assaulted with thousands upon thousands of titles. I tried it with Amazon, as of today 233,832 results come up in the 3.5 seconds it took for the screen to populate.
We seem to be obsessed with it in this culture.
What unseen force determines that this is to be our summum bonum?
A quick answer is money. And indeed, money is most likely The State’s primary interest is in allowing happiness to be widely circulated as a benefit. Yet, there seems to be something more to it. Most people would say that they want to be happy. It seems even without incentive, we would all just prefer to be happy. I think that is an amazing phenomenon.
No wonder the Dali Lama says, “I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear,” to open his book. This is backed up in utility as well, as happiness seems to at least correlate with success from a bottom-up effect, as it seems the “happy” may regularly see a slight bump in success. Counter intuitive, though, to the way westerners are taught it works, which is that success will bring happiness. We stumble upon an interesting quirk. If this is true, it seems that if a culture teaches the happiness-success connection in reverse, it may still apply. My mind resists. This reintroduces the age-old, “what came first, the chicken or the egg?”
Well, we know the egg evolved long before anything we would even try to call a chicken existed. Evolution would also include a proto-egg before eggs.1 When it comes to happiness and success, I imagine there is quite a connection between them, and like the proto-egg to chicken story answer, success from happiness or the reverse, come from something else, and it must be a “proto” and unseen.
I embark on this line of research to expose what happiness is, what may have come before, and in doing so, expose of the environmental role of happiness. My motivation is simple: there is a dark side to this whole happiness game. When people fall prey to cons and charlatans who know full well of the human mind’s intense addiction to happiness, I see a problem. When big business seeks to scrape the meager resources from those who have little can use happiness as a weapon, I see a problem. I think there is an unsettling knowledge among various peers and fellow citizens that happiness is being turned against the general public daily. A mirage of happiness triggering people into behavior such as pursuing things they don’t need, or worse, pursuit of ideas which will be toxic to the mind and body.
I also suspect that happiness itself, once deconstructed, will resemble the very chemistry which constitutes it. In other words, there will be a world of complexity giving way to a multitude of tiny parts sometimes coming together in ways we would recognize as happiness, but other times combinations result it what should be happiness but isn’t. Also, ways which shouldn’t be like happiness, but are, causing similar and powerful reactions in the mind and body as genuine, real-deal happiness. Even if I am wrong, and happiness is simple and easily explained, this venture into the clock-work of the issue will, at the bare minimum, give us all better tools for finding something out about ourselves.
Can’t know too much about happiness, can you?
At the most, a journey like this will take us into the heart of what drives so many features of human life from the most complex of international trade deals to the private and internal workings of our bodies. On the up side, let’s say I do find what I seek. Will that truly answer any questions? Am I prepared to find out every little thing about why a mind perceives happiness, and still be left with one terrifying possibility—the variables involved are too numerous. It could very well be, even with happiness on the slab, the plethora of events roiling just before we perceive all types of joy and enjoyment could be just as decisive. There could be a regression here, or at least one too lengthy to see all the way back to its beginning, removing us from personal understanding. Terrifying because that could be where the complete answer lives, and if that is the case, I may be looking at the life’s work of a fool.
To reduce this possibility, I shall stick to one primary factor: concern for what happens in people. In doing so, we may need to change our current position regarding happiness if our current perception is toxic?
As I have said already, I don’t know if this question has a complete answer, but I am going to get a feel for the bottom.
1 “The necessity of pursuing happiness the foundation of liberty. 52. As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty. The stronger ties we have to an unalterable pursuit of happiness in general, which is our greatest good, and which, as such, our desires always follow, the more are we free from any necessary determination of our will to any particular action…” (1894, p. 348)