“To the European, it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’ Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically. As we see, a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy, last but not least, through actualizing the potential meaning inherent and dormant in a given situation.”
When our American forefathers set out to construct the ideal society, deciding upon life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as the worthiest of aspirations, they could not have imagined how many of us would be decidedly unhappy in our lives and situations, despite the relative economic security and material comforts we enjoy in the 21st century. Actually if the American experiment has taught us anything it’s that happiness cannot be bought.Economic advantages can only take you so far, and most psychological studies have shown that there is not much of a difference in levels of happiness between those who make $50,000 a year and $500,000 a year.
The important psychological fact to take away is that a tipping point exists where people are able to comfortably look after their material needs and therefore have the time, energy, and perspective to contemplate their existential situations more deeply. They start to worry about questions that would not even come up for them if they were just fighting to survive day to day. In fact their meaning would be derived though getting their basic needs satisfied. What is the use in contemplating your place in the cosmos when that place is being threatened every moment in actuality?
Most of us don’t have a working definition or a clear conception of what happiness is in the first place. We strive after a theoretical entity, an amorphous idea without clear boundaries. Does happiness mean an emotional sense of elation? If this is the case expecting the state all the time is an illusion and destined for failure because emotions are transitory. Their evolutionary value is to give us quick and decisive information so that we can respond appropriately without having to think through our options first.
From a psychological point of view we find that happiness is a product of our engagement with life. Meaning has to originate from within, not be supplied from without to feel truly meaningful. When we blindly follow paths that our society or our families have laid out before us, we sense on a deep level that we are not following our own unique destinies. We turn into a version of a person someone else has imagined. External rewards that our society promises will provide happiness can never compete with the internal feeling of fulfillment, with the unshakable confidence that we are growing towards the people we know we are, not the people that others want or need us to be for their own purposes.
The quest for happiness is really a quest for meaning. Becoming meditative about the direction our lives are going and whether we feel an internal sense of satisfaction and fulfillment is the first step in deciding on choices that move us closer to who we know we are.