When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life. ~ John Lennon
Our lives are driven by incentives and happiness is the greatest of them all. Happiness fuels our actions, and at the same time is the most elusive, and seemingly hardest to achieve virtue. Just think of the eternal “pursuit of happiness” people talk about all the time. When it comes to happiness, nothing fails like success. There never comes a moment when you can proclaim to have attained happiness. Why? Because happiness is eternally reborn.
The American constitution states that the pursuit of happiness is a man’s birthright. Some of us are too frightened to “pursue happiness”, finding a certain comfort in misery. Other’s of us are cynical of the “pursuit of happiness”, so that every time we yell at people to “Act your age!”, it sounds like “Be sad with me!”
So what exactly is Happiness? And how does Solitude cooperate in feeling it?
Happiness Is Not A Pursuit
One of the easiest mental traps to fall into is the idea that happiness is “just out there” waiting to nip us on the butts. People seem to think that happiness is waiting for us, beyond some kind of future achievement of a goal, or a change of circumstances. But this mindset only makes our happiness dependent on factors outside of our control.
A good example of this false idea is summarized in a well known saying: happiness is having someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to. This common belief has some truth to it, but when you think about it, reaching and keeping these ideal circumstances creates a lot of anxiety that leads to unhappiness. It’s self-defeating! Your beloved may die, your age eventually will hinder your activities and your expectations of the future may not be met.
The pursuit of happiness is a self-perpetuating task. Pursuing anything creates a tension, the tension makes you unhappy, and unhappiness will demand to continue the eternal, exhausting pursuit.
Happiness Is Not Gratification
There is no greater happiness than making teenagers feel uncomfortable by hovering near them in the condom aisle. Or so I thought.
Too often happiness is confused with gratification. Gratification is the awesome feeling that comes when we accomplish a goal we set out to achieve. Basically, gratification is getting what you wanted.
Gratification isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just not going to get you any closer to happiness. Why? By achieving one desire and getting something you wanted will 99.9% of the time result in another new desire arising, and demanding to be achieved.
You may be thinking “but we need desires because without them we’d have no incentive to act. We wouldn’t be able to live. Right?” Desires aren’t directly the cause of unhappiness, but it’s an attachment to these desires that make us unhappy. This is where acceptance becomes a virtue.
What we want shouldn’t be responsible for determining how happy we are, it is how happy we are that should determine what it is that we want.
Happiness In Solitude
“All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone.” ~ Blaise Pascal
Although the world has changed hugely over the centuries, the basic ingredients of human happiness still remain the same. The Sufi’s believe that everybody is born happy, it is our innate nature, and only through our socialization do we get lost in the mental fallacies of suffering. What we call happiness is simply just what the absence of suffering feels like.
“Dukkha” is a Buddhist word that describes the absence of suffering. This isn’t the suffering that comes with a major catastrophic event in our lives like the death of a loved one, but is rather a word that describes the persistent, almost subtle feelings of dissatisfaction and desires that most of us feel during our daily lives.
As spoken about in the previous article on acceptance in this series, desire is the root of all our suffering. For instance, think about the well-known desire not to look ridiculous at your next job interview. This results in worry, unease, insecurity with how you look/speak/behave, uncertainty and symptoms of panic and anxiety.
So, why do we pursue happiness? Basically, because we are dissatisfied, and we feel as though there’s something missing in our lives, or something that we must add to make our lives ‘richer’. Financial security, possessions, seeking our peer’s respect and approval, status and entitlement are all symptoms of the pursuit of happiness. They are all the result of dissatisfaction.
Only through introspection do we finally come to realize that happiness is not something we want to gain, but happiness is something we want to lose: insecurities, hunger, fears and angst.
In solitude we have the freedom through introspection to find all that has been causing our suffering and destroy it.
We are bombarded from a young age with countless social ideals that we ‘should’ strive to accomplish. We are told that we should achieve good grades, a respectable career, be righteously moral, achieve a successful lifestyle with the latest gadgets for our families. We are told that males should be sexually accomplished and females sexually modest, everyone should be socially extroverted, physically attractive, and well versed in political, historical and social matters. And all this, towards being financially secure in our retirement, and able to provide ‘properly and sufficiently’ for our children’s futures.
Only in solitude can we feel a respite from the social idealistic baits that initiate our aimless happiness pursuits. Only in solitude can we rid ourselves from the judgment of others in order to find our true selves and overcome all the feelings that cause our suffering, living our lives with our own natural happiness.
Unhappiness, in essence, is the result of how poorly you’re relating to the present moment and its circumstances. So think for a moment … are you practicing acceptance? Are you experiencing thankfulness, gratitude and appreciation for all that life offers in this moment, now? Happiness is the side-effect of an acceptance of the present moment, without the preoccupation of wanting the moment to be more ideal, or expecting it to be different in some way.
Solitude presents the opportunity to learn how to adapt and relate to each present moment, in order to produce complete acceptance and complete happiness.
This article is part of The Virtues of Solitude series.