Do what makes you happy. The benign, yet unsettlingly inane answer to all your problems. It’s like the one time when I told the waiter, there’s no salt in my curd rice, and he said: “Sir, you should swim in Pacific Ocean.”
The sensationalism around happiness is recent. A decade earlier, you had to be justifiably stoned to get away with talk like: “hey, I just want to be happy.” Now, you can be stone-cold sober – look into someone’s eyes – and say, “I just want to be happy.” It’s normal.
Happiness is not new though. It has always been influential in human flourishing. But, it was the final destination – an unknown yet desired state achieved through virtue, wisdom, and wellness. And a lot of struggle. The one person who I have heard explored this idea almost died of exhaustion. His name was Gautama Buddha. The serenity on his visage, I am guessing, is because he stopped wandering for a while, sat under a tree and eventually made peace with the idea: life is suffering.
The current explosion of happiness is about none of that. We got tired of messages around chasing money or fame. Someone came along and said there are people with all the money and fame who are miserable and crying on the floor. And one sadist walked along chanting: “you can’t wipe your tears with the money!” That image scared us. So, we needed a new purpose – something else to chase. And that’s when we felt the epiphanic jolt – Happiness. Since I am doing the money-fame bit for happiness, why not just be happy first and then take care of everything else later.
So, we remade the checklist, scratched out things like “buy a beach house” and instead wrote down, “Happiness.” That should do it. We woke up early next morning, saw the sun rise, exercised, meditated, smiled at strangers, we were nice to mom, and we ate fruit. It felt pretty good. Maybe this is it. Maybe you found the elusive key to the invisible door marked happiness.
Then, tomorrow occurred. You wake up early, clean your room, eat some fruit, exercise. And then you feel the jolt: you have to do this every day! For all its jumping-with-joy-in-front-of-the-sun imagery, this happiness thing can be pretty darn boring. That upsets you and you want to eat some chocolate and cry a little. But, you can’t be upset because priority #1 is happiness. So, that’s what you start searching for in everything you do. Like the guy chasing money bases his decisions on how much money this will make, you base your decisions on how much happiness this will give.
In both c(h)ases, the answer is the same: Never enough.
There is something called a random number generator. Self-explanatory right. Happiness is like that. Some days the generator throws a really high number. There’s nothing special about those days. It’s a truly random day where you are doing truly random things. But, you feel a wave of happiness. You are happy anyway and dance a little and smile at the neighbor and wonder why you are so happy. Then there’s the next day. One you have been looking forward to for a long time: the pronouncement of your promotion. For some reason, the generator throws out a really low number. Everyone’s asking you why you are behaving like a nut job on a day you should be dancing with joy. You wonder why.
This randomness ruffles you. Happiness is your purpose. Go take what’s rightfully yours.
So, you try to hack the generator.
You kick the generator and try to open it up. The generator sees your frustration and starts throwing out really low numbers. The generator knows there’s nothing so happier than irritating an already irritated person. You give it one last kick and then leave it alone and go sit under a tree or something.
And then, just for fun, the generator throws out a really high number.
The only way to hack the generator is stop trying to hack it in the first place. Even if you managed to hack it for a while, the high will get boring. You would wish it went back to its randomness.
That’s the problem with making happiness the purpose of life. It cannot be. Like everything else, it can only be a part of life. Like creating value, being useful, being there, staying strong, staying persistent, feeling afraid, feeling sad, feeling annoyed, feeling sick, feeling lonely, feeling miserable. .
For some people, it’s their worst moments that have contributed to a present-day happiness. Others wish they didn’t while away life chasing one happy night after another as they lay in agony and vomit.
That is why doing what makes you happy can never be the solution. It’s a placebo for your purposelessness. Every time you feel unhappy, you are going to feel purposeless and vice versa. The bitter pill that’s hard to swallow is making peace with purposelessness. With unhappiness. It’s like the curd rice without any salt. Strangely, gulping that down is what actually makes you happy.