On Happiness: are there good and bad kinds?

Dear quarter lives, 

I was flipping through a magazine recently and this self-help exercise came up. Its aim was to help you identify moments of happiness you had experienced within whatever time frame you chose to explore, be it a day, a week, or years. I guess the point of that was two-fold: first, to train yourself to recognise happiness and second, to be able to better understand what triggers those moments so you can increase them. But as I read through the exercise, I couldn’t help but wonder if this logic of identifying what made you happy and trying to increase it was limited only to certain kinds of happiness — the good kind.

I don’t really know who decides what’s good or not but surely there are kinds of happiness that are more destructive. So perhaps let us step aside from good and bad happiness and speak of it instead in terms of its usefulness to ourselves and to others around us. Maybe we can refer to happiness as being of a productive kind and a destructive kind. I never really thought of happiness before as having any sort of diversity or texture but now it makes sense why sometimes deep down I feel a certain aversion to happiness. Yes, there is the normal doubt that kicks in that wonders if I deserve this happiness and insists to base it on some sort of criteria that is commonly referred to as “goodness” although we might be all referring to wildly different criteria, we all use the common terms good and bad to grade our progress as humans in this world. For some, goodness may be based on the spiritual, for others, it may be more financial or related to marriage or having children or a successful career. The thing is it doesn’t really matter what your criteria is; what matters more is that you have one. Why is that important to identify? Because it means somewhere deep inside of you sometime long ago, you decided that you cannot be happy until …, and now fill in the … with your criteria. While having a reward system in place might be useful to help you achieve other goals in life or to teach your children the value of discipline and how to work towards something, when it comes to happiness this is one of the most cruel things we can do to ourselves. We end up delaying happiness because of some idea in our heads that happiness only belongs to people who are … . Happiness, like sadness, like anger is an emotion. It is a temporary response to a thought, to our environment (internal or external), to events (internal, external, past, present, real, assumed) and to people as well, and all these responses, these feelings we feel about things influences how we experience and perceive the world. But happiness like other emotions comes and goes. It cannot stay forever but yes we have the power to call it in by influencing the inner or outer environment it is responding to. The inside we can influence with which thoughts and feelings we choose to pay attention to. The outside we can influence by taking ourselves to places we love, eating food that helps nourish both our bodies and souls, seeing and connecting with people we love. So you see what the magazine article was trying to focus on is the aspects of bringing in happiness we can control and influence. 

Though I must say that needs to come with many buts and disclaimers because not all sources of happiness are created equal, and therefore, not all resulting happinesses are the same. Happiness that you get from winning at the casino might be more dangerous and quite destructive to try to get more of than happiness you get by having an intimate heartfelt conversation with a friend. But in fact, I would say even the spending time with friends kind of happiness if done too much that it starts to impact your progress in life elsewhere then even spending time with friends becomes now a destructive source of happiness. Hence why at the very beginning of this I asked you to put bad and good on hold and refer instead to productive and destructive because it means that we steer away from blaming anything as being the cause of less happiness but rather take back the responsibility and emphasise that it is not burgers that are themselves bad but how many burgers we have, it is not alcohol itself that is the culprit but our relationship to it, it is not our desire for beauty that is bad but rather how much money we are spending on new clothes rather than saving for a home, if saving for a home is something you’ve been saying you want to do but just haven’t gotten round to doing it yet. 

At the end of the day, there is no universal strategy to happiness. One, because we all mean different things when referring to happiness. And two, because we ourselves will mean different things when we speak of happiness now and in ten years time. We are always changing and so is the world we live in, and perhaps there is nothing more destructive than holding on to an outdated idea of happiness because after all what is a human being without their capacity to adapt, to grow and to change. Can you imagine a tree refusing to shed its leaves in the winter because it’s being stubborn and holding on to the idea that it cannot be happy without its leaves? It is absurd. So why do we humans refuse to call ourselves out and catch the absurd demands we are making of life and of ourselves? Why put all this pressure on yourself to not shed your leaves when it is winter and on top of that criticise yourself for it? Now how damaging is that to your happiness?

May we all learn to see where we asked the impossible of ourselves, where we have demanded the impossible from life, and forgive our hearts for shedding happiness during the winter. May we make together kinder spaces in our minds so we can hold the truth that much of what we do, we might not fully understand. May we all learn to just live through it all because there is a happiness to be found in all the corners of this earthly experience. Even when it is darkest, happiness sparkles throughout like the stars of the night sky shimmering and reminding us that we are always surrounded by Suns, even when our own Sun is yet to rise; the stars remind us to have faith. Faith that sooner or later, the Sun will shine again, so until then learn to enjoy the Suns you can see now, even if they are fainter and scattered. May we all learn to enjoy the sparkle of our own night sky and embrace it in all its magic! 

With love and as always for peace,