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An Alternative to Happiness

Why do we strive to be happy? It is a powerful emotion, yet few are those whom fortune has blessed with genuine happiness. As many of the world’s great religions like Buddhism and Christianity have already discovered long ago, life is suffering. Most babies are born crying, and it’s no wonder.

You could just do nothing at all and still you would feel pain. You’d starve, your limbs would begin to ache as they’d atrophy, you’d grow intensely bored and lonely, and if you did absolutely nothing for long enough, you would eventually die.

Suffering is perhaps one of the only undeniable universal truths. Go ahead and stub your toe and try to convince yourself you aren’t in pain. It’s just not humanly possible. Pain makes life a non-trivial thing and raises the stakes. If it weren’t for the throes of life, existence wouldn’t feel important at all. It would just be an easy (and boring) game with no enemies to defeated or levels to ascend.

We say things like “find a job that makes you happy” but suggestions such as this one do not prepare us for the pains in store for each and everyone of us. If you merely choose to do what makes you happy and that which temporarily preserves you from pain and challenge, you could just drop out, smoke pot and play video games all day, everyday but I can guarantee you that living like this won’t make your life worthwhile in the slightest. 

Happiness is basically an anomaly. In order to be happy all your needs must be met and your problems solved or temporarily forgotten. Everyone you know, including yourself, must be healthy and alive; your house must be in perfect order and cohesion; your country must be at peace and well-governed; your friends must be honest, kind and reliable; all your worries and stresses must be gone; your grades need to be relatively steady and decent; traffic should be practically unheard of; public transportation circulation should preferably be on time and flawless; your bank account should be fairly full; your job must be pleasant; your sleep should be replenishing and constant; your stomach full; your mental health impeccable; the world free of conflict and the list continues endlessly. Another way to be happy is to forget all of your problems by a temporary peak in serotonin hormones often generated artificially through substance abuse or with the advent of incredibly good news.

Considering the fickle and rare nature of happiness, why do we orient ourselves towards such an unreliable emotion. All it takes is one minor setback and it vanishes. The pursuit of happiness often even requires the naive and potentially dangerous forgetting of important problems in one’s life. The desire to escape pain and trade it for constant happiness is what drives people towards alcoholism or gambling or even suicide.

I therefore suggest an alternative. Stop looking for happiness and instead find meaning. Understanding that life wasn’t made to be pleasant will set you free. A meaningful existence is the consequence of successfully striving towards goals difficult enough to make your existence important in your own eyes. This typically involves the world being better off with you living on it than not (by your own standards of course). I can’t possibly think of something more motivating than knowing that your resilience and actions improve the conditions for life. The harder the goal, the greater the meaning. 

Perhaps it’s saving lives as a great doctor, or growing food for people in need, or raising your children to be good people, or writing a book that changes the course of humanity for the better, or being a great and dependable plumber. Only you know.

It seems as if the examples I’ve listed above are strivings towards making the world happier, but they are instead attempts to eliminate unnecessary suffering. Being happy and avoiding unhappiness seem like two sides of the same situation, but they are different. Generating happiness is giving a child a piece of candy, while eliminating suffering is teaching that child to feed themselves healthily for the rest of their lives. The latter is the more demanding objective but it also makes the parents’ (and the child’s) life a lot more meaningful.

In the process of occupying your days with meaningful endeavours you’ll probably even encounter an emotion infinitely more reliable than happiness: long-term contentment.

By Enrika Béland

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