You quickly realize how far you’ve fallen when the ambition to write an article falls onto an idea that aims at vilifying happiness. Yes, the big capital H – Happiness, this sadistic, truant, and non-compliant word that has creased its way into our pleasure-seeking existences and moral consciences. This paradoxical word has uprooted our attempts at real happiness and instead planted seeds of delusional pleasure and short-term gains. It has acted as a double agent, disguised as the good guy while secretly running around, causing implicit damage and internal destruction in the background.
“What the hell is happiness anyways, and should we be looking for it in the first place?”
Happiness is not a fish that you can catch
The inspiration derives from a 90s Canadian rock band – Our Lady Piece – who put out an album aptly titled, Happiness is Not a Fish That You Can Catch. While the album deals with a fleet of psychological issues – death, obsession, spirituality, and happiness – it is the album title that has driven me into exploring the ugly side of happiness.
Let’s explore the personified world of happiness as a fish. Fishing is relatively simple(although extraordinarily technical). You prepare a fishing line, procure tasty, smelly bait, cast out a fishing line into a stand of water that is known or prospected to have fish, and wait until the line begins to tug. With little to no expertise, it is possible to catch a fish. It lies within the realm of everyday possibility and hope. The result is tangible; it relies on an explicit set of instructions and practices.
Happiness is certainly not a fish, not one that you can catch either.
Joy and pleasure are like fish. By putting in a little time or skill, you can finesse the accumulation of both. You can find joy and pleasure in everyday experiences. You can catch one big fish and enjoy the moment and feel good about it. But it isn’t a joy that will sustain itself naturally. Every single fish you catch brings a new level of joy, pleasure, and excitement. But it isn’t called happiness. Happiness is not a fish that you can catch or something that you can easily find.
Happiness is knowledge
Happiness is the treasured feeling of knowing that you are a good fisherman, putting in the time to season your skills and abilities. Happiness is a sense of contentment that arrives only when the accomplishment is final or in serious progress. Happiness is the grind. You receive short-term pleasure and euphoria when you catch a fish. The satisfaction inherited from the knowledge and the understanding that you are a great fisherman is where happiness resides. You can’t buy happiness. You can earn it, and it takes a lot of hard work and dedication.
The knowledge that you are a great fisherman is what makes you happy. The understanding that you have utilized and harnessed all the right tools and adequate skills to perform best is what will lead to contentment and happiness. In following a set of virtues(whatever they may be in the fishing world), you provide fulfillment within yourself that leads to happiness. You have put in the effort; you have mastered the techniques; you have invested time and energy; all of these equate to happiness in the end. Buying the most expensive fishing rod and catching the largest fish will not bring happiness.
Old and new
We seem to have dulled this happiness blade over the last contemporary years. Happiness now stands too subjective and tangible. Every individual has his or her metrics for happiness which often entangle with activities of pleasure. Traveling the world will make me happy; buying a new expensive car will make me happy; living in a mansion will make me happy. We equate happiness with being happy all the time. We have associated it as a state of well-being, a feeling of constant positivity. A reassurance that life is good. Does a good life mean doing things that we want to do all the time?
In Aristotle’s day, the idea of happiness came packaged with more grit and resolve. Rather than the subjective, feelings-based idea we have today, the term for living a flourishing and fulfilling life was called eudaimonia. The philosophy of eudaimonia was simply objective – you followed the virtues that produced an excellent function of the human self. It represented the highest attainable good and closest comparison to the satisfaction of the human self; happiness. In following good virtues, the reward was the knowledge of having lived according to the virtues proscribed for the good life. You didn’t need to find your happy place; living a good life was enough to set the tone for everything else. The knowledge of knowing that you were living according to a set of values, or virtues, meant that you were happy. It wasn’t a feeling but a deep understanding.
Catching fish was irrelevant. Stoically, you followed all the right steps and were happy in return.
The emergence of the individualized self coupled with the abolishment of patience has quelled our willingness to wait for happiness. We expect it to be tangibly available now when really, happiness is about enduring hard work and immersing in the appreciation of life-defining struggles. Happiness is an accumulation of a well-lived life; one lived according to good virtues.
Happiness is not a fish that you can catch; it is a mindset that you can harness to catch more fish and enjoy the experience of catching fish.
Stop looking for happiness
The search for happiness leads to an infinite loop, the proverbial dog chasing the tail. There are no clear markers along the way; it is hopeless and equivocal to seek happiness at any moment. You can’t find it; it is far too abstract to objectify. Paradoxically, the search leads to even greater levels of unhappiness and discontent. The more people value happiness, the more likely they are to be disappointed by its absence.
Fundamentally, we need to disassociate our subjective aims toward happiness and focus more on being good, on acting within a set boundary of virtues. By focusing less time on being happy, and placing greater convictions on living a good life(based on a chosen set of valued criteria), we eventually gain a greater appreciation for life and our efforts.
“Happiness is not a state to arrive at, but a manner of traveling. “Margaret Lee Runbeck
It isn’t the destination but the journey. Happiness is a state of being. To truly unlock an objective mindset, similar to what Aristotle and the Ancient Greeks referred to as eudaimonia, we can focus on virtuous action as a precursor to happiness. By acting under a chosen set of values, we are more likely inclined to inhabit a construct of contentment and fulfillment.
In doing so, not only will you catch more fish, but appreciate first the act of fishing in itself. That is happiness.