Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

Why We Must Actively Pursue Happiness

There's a reason happiness doesn't occur by accident

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Recently, I've come across a number of articles—both online and off—warning of the dangers of deliberately aiming to become happy. In Viktor Frankl's book Man's Search for Meaning, for example, he argues that "happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue." Though I consider Frankl a great thinker and his book a masterwork, on this point I wholeheartedly disagree.

The notion may have merit that if we only aim at the right things we will as a matter of course become happy, but I fail to see how pretending we're aiming at them for some reason other than happiness would make happiness more likely "to ensue." In fact it would make happiness less likely for the same reason great books, beautiful paintings, and stirring music must be an artist's main aim when he goes about creating them: such great works don't happen by accident. There may not be only one path to creating a great work of art or a beautiful piece of music, but the number of paths that will lead to greatness are far fewer than the number of paths that won't. Similarly, more and more research is showing us there exist good and bad ways to find happiness—that some things we do are more likely to make us unhappy than happy no matter how convinced we are to the contrary. But if we don't make happiness our explicit goal, why would we ever ask ourselves which ones we should choose? Why would we ever wonder if one path might be better than another, and therefore choose it?

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Without a conscious decision to pursue happiness, we're more likely to confuse the means to happiness with happiness itself (that is, to confuse happiness with money, for example, or with having a spouse or children). And if the means we choose to bring us happiness fails to do so, we'll be more likely to continue to choose it, thinking we only need more of it or something else like it but better. Certainly, consciously pursuing happiness may set our expectations high and therefore increase our risk for disappointment, but if we don't actively seek to be happy we're far more likely not to become happy at all.

Many people balk at the notion that one path to happiness might be better than others because they think that happiness is dependent upon external things (that what makes one person happy will be different from what makes another person happy), and therefore that no two paths to happiness will be the same. But while the things two different people enjoy may be different—while their attachments may be different—what secures their happiness will be the same. As I argue in my book The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self, happiness requires two related but ultimately separate things: the resilience to withstand the bumps, shocks, and tragedies that life inevitably brings to everyone, and the ability to feel joy. And though our attachments are indeed what bring us joy, without a high enough life-condition, we're incapable of enjoying the things to which we're attached (think of how many millionaires are unhappy).

What's required to maintain a high life-condition? Simply put: wisdom. The wisdom, among other things, to appreciate what we have, to understand and act on the knowledge that compassionate action has the greatest power to make us happy, and, most crucially, to continuously examine our beliefs and our behavior in order to make them truer and better. Leveraging life experience—good and bad—as opportunities to shatter the delusions that populate our thinking and prevent our life-condition from rising to the dizzying height of which its capable is the true path to indestructible happiness. But it's a hard enough process that if you don't intentionally aim to accomplish it, genuine, long-lasting happiness is likely to elude you.

 

Dr. Lickerman's new book The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self is available now. Please read the sample chapter and visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble to order your copy today!

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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