What is the route to happiness? A common answer is to seek pleasurable experiences and avoid painful ones. But this hedonistic lifestyle doesn’t really work. For one thing, psychological inquiry into the nature of sadomasochistic relationships shows that some find pleasure in pain. In a more general sense it doesn’t work because sometimes we have to undergo painful experiences to get the life results we really want, and sometimes too much of a pleasurable experience leads to pain, like overindulging in food.
The real problem with using pleasure and pain as guideposts is that these states are transitory and are usually dependent on material goods. After awhile the same amount of input ceases to be pleasurable as you adjust your expectations to it, making you need more of the substance to get the same feeling. In an existential sense this experience mimics the increasing tolerance that drug users face, and of course for the typical consumer in our culture all of the products that provide pleasure are drugs. The temporary high after a purchase wears off and you are left feeling just as depleted as you did before.
We see that happiness can’t be dependent on things and has to spring from developing your internal characteristics and capacities, from mindfully making your thoughts and behaviors sync up with the person you want to be. People who are genuinely happy enjoy life in the moment and they all feel that they are on a path they freely chose that is helping them develop into the fullest versions of themselves. Obviously abject poverty is unbearable and keeps people from having the opportunity to self-actualize, but on the flip side no amount of material wealth can compensate for the pervasive feeling that you are betraying Self.
Happiness in an existential sense is not an emotion. It’s a state of being where you are turned towards life and people. Pleasurable feelings are sure to arise from this state, but the goal is not pleasure in itself, rather creating the conditions necessary for your full human development.