More than anything else, all humans seek happiness. At the root of every goal -- success, beauty, health, love, money, power -- is the expectation that it will make us happy.
Yet it is so difficult for us to achieve happiness. Why do we always feel so discontent?
For starters, one of the greatest myths that humankind has developed to reassure itself of its importance is that the universe was created to answer our needs. Sorry (not sorry) to burst your bubble...but it wasn’t. One of the major functions of every culture has been to shield its members from the all the chaos: the enormity of our isolation in the cosmos, how precarious our hold on survival actually is, and the randomness of it all. Myths, beliefs, stories, patriotism, ethnic traditions, social classes, and religions (including this one) all attempt to transform the random, crushing forces of the universe into manageable, or at least understandable, patterns. Life is hard enough without our consciousness constantly analyzing every single thing we do and think and feel. And since humans are wired to always assume the worst (it’s what keeps us alive), facing the odds of existence would be even more difficult without such trust in the exclusive privileges that culture and religion provide.
But the universe was not designed with the comfort of human beings in mind. “It is almost immeasurably huge, and most of it is hostilely empty and cold. It is the setting for great violence, as when occasionally a star explodes, turning to ashes everything within billions of miles. The rare planet whose gravity field would not crush our bones is probably swimming in lethal gases. Even planet Earth, which can be so idyllic and picturesque, is not to be taken for granted. To survive on it men and women have had to struggle for millions of years against ice, fire, floods, wild animals, and invisible microorganisms that appear out of nowhere to snuff us out. It seems that every time a pressing danger is avoided, a new and more sophisticated threat appears on the horizon. No sooner do we invent a new substance than its by-products start poisoning the environment. . . . The earth may be our only home, but it is a home full of booby traps waiting to go off at any moment. . . . It is not that the universe is random in an abstract mathematical sense….But natural processes do not take human desires into account. They are deaf and blind to our needs, and thus they are random in contrast with the order we attempt to establish through our goals. … “The universe is not hostile, nor yet is it friendly,” in the words of JH Holmes. “It is simply indifferent.”(8-9)
This cultural hubris of assuming we are entitled to a universe that is insensitive to human needs is problematic in the sense that it grants an unjustified sense of security. An unrealistic trust in the shields of cultural myths can lead to equally extreme disillusion when they fail. When people start taking innovation for granted and believing that life is always going to easy, they are stripped of their ability to face adversity with courage and determination. As soon as something goes wrong, they quickly realize that what they had believed in is not entirely true and abandon faith in cultural values and everything else they have learned to trust. They find themselves struggling with the chaos of unease and lethargy, and use that struggle as a reason to give up hope and stop trying.
“This tends to happen whenever a culture has had a run of good luck and for a while seems indeed to have found a way of controlling the forces of nature. At that point it is logical for it to begin believing that it is a chosen people who need no longer fear any major setback. The Romans reached that juncture after several centuries of ruling the Mediterranean, the Chinese were confident of their immutable superiority before the Mongol conquest, and the Aztecs before the arrival of the Spaniards. . . .
Such symptoms of disillusion are not hard to observe around us now. The most obvious ones relate to the pervasive listlessness that affects so many lives. Genuinely happy individuals are few and far between. How many people do you know who enjoy what they are doing, who are reasonably satisfied with their lot, who do not regret the past and look to the future with genuine confidence?” (11)
An even more common symptom is the feeling of existential dread--essentially, the fear of being. It is a feeling that arises from the experience of human freedom and responsibility. The feeling that life has no meaning, nothing makes sense, and there is no point in existing. All of the historical strivings of humankind have been for nothing; we are just forgotten specks drifting in the void of space. How many of you have ever wondered, “Is this all there is?” Well, don’t worry. You’re far from alone. “Childhood can be painful, adolescence confusing, but for most people, behind it all there is the expectation that after one grows up, things will get better. During the years of early adulthood the future still looks promising, the hope remains that one’s goals will be realized. But inevitably the bathroom mirror shows the first white hairs, and confirms the fact that those extra pounds are not about to leave; inevitably eyesight begins to fail and mysterious pains begin to shoot through the body. . . .these intimations of mortality plainly communicate the message: Your time is up, it’s time to move on. When this happens, few people are ready. ‘Wait a minute, this can’t be happening to me. I haven’t even begun to live. Where’s all that money I was supposed to have made? Where are all the good times I was going to have?’ A feeling of having been led on, of being cheated, is an understandable consequence of this realization. From the earliest years we have been conditioned to believe that a benign fate would provide for us. After all, everybody seemed to agree that we had the great fortune of living in the richest country that ever was, in the most scientifically advanced period of human history, surrounded by the most efficient technology, protected by the wisest Constitution. Therefore, it made sense to expect that we would have a richer, more meaningful life than any earlier members of the human race. . . .Yet despite all these assurances, sooner or later we wake up alone, sensing that there is no way this affluent, scientific, and sophisticated world is going to provide us with happiness. . . . While humankind collectively has increased its material powers a thousandfold, it has not advanced very far in terms of improving the content of experience. ” (12-16)
Unfortunately, there is not much we can do to change the way the universe operates, and we will always have little-to-no influence on the forces that disrupt our well-being. Our sense of self-worth, the joy we feel in life, is entirely dependent on how the mind filters and interprets our everyday life. It is not the result of the controls we are able to exert over the forces of the universe. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t keep learning how to master the external environment, as the survival of the human race will certainly depends on it, but it will not add one bit to how good we personally feel, or even reduce the chaos of the world as humans experience it. To do that, we have to master our consciousness itself.
The second reason we are always so discontent is because humans are chronically dissatisfied. Whenever some of our needs are temporarily met, we immediately start wishing for more. For the majority of people on this earth, life goals are simple: survive, have children (who will also survive), and do so with as much comfort and dignity as is possible. Yet as soon as our survival needs are met, we grow anxious. The basics are no longer enough. As our money and comfort rise, the sense of satisfaction we hoped we would achieve with it generally decreases. Even though we know that material success may not bring happiness, we continue to engage in an endless struggle to reach external goals, expecting they will improve life. Yet with more wealth and more power comes more responsibilities, and all we end up feeling is stressed: stressed to maintain our life-style, stressed to keep improving it, and stressed about losing everything we’ve worked for. Stress. Stress. Stress. “This paradox of rising expectations suggests that improving the quality of life might be an insurmountable task. In fact, there is no inherent problem in our desire to escalate our goals, as long as we enjoy the struggle along the way. The problem arises when people are so fixated on what they want to achieve that they cease to derive pleasure from the present. When that happens, they forfeit their chance of contentment. Though the evidence suggests that most people are caught up on this frustrating treadmill of rising expectations, many individuals have found ways to escape it. These are people who, regardless of their material conditions, have been able to improve the quality of their lives, who are satisfied, and who have a way of making those around them also a bit more happy. Such individuals lead vigorous lives, are open to a variety of experiences, keep on learning until the day they die, and have strong ties and commitments to other people and to the environment in which they live. They enjoy whatever they do, even if tedious or difficult; they are hardly ever bored, and they can take in stride anything that comes their way. Perhaps their greatest strength is that they are in control of their lives.” (10)
Clearly, it appears to be more beneficial to find out how everyday life can be made more harmonious and more satisfying, and thus achieve by a direct route what cannot be reached through the pursuit of symbolic goals. (44-45)
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