Is happiness what is left over after we trim away the pursuit of despondence? In many respects, the answer may be yes. We pursue the low road not merely by ruminating fruitlessly over injuries received from others (who often have forgotten, don’t care, or didn’t mean it), but also by focusing on goals that, once achieved, fail to deliver any sort of lasting contentment. Habituation deprives us of satisfaction within a fairly short time after winning that new post, house, auto, or lottery. What once stimulated us seems now stale.
One likely source of well being is approaching life with a sense of philosophy. We view our lives as the result of our actions, and we interpret misfortunes as injuries perpetrated by ourselves or others. This view is conducive to success for the man of action, the world of business, achievement, and the like. It is not an incorrect view, but it leaves out happenstance. Sometimes things just come to pass. Various aspects of our lives are beyond our control. No matter how attuned we are to our milieu, we may suffer a setback that was unavoidable. How do we react to it? Do we ruminate, or do we take a broader view, recognize that some such misfortune was likely to happen sooner or later, and that is just how it is. The ability to take the second view is important to happiness, regardless of whether it is an accurate assessment of the particular situation.
It may also be true that traditional goals associated with happiness but which are deadened by habituation need not be discarded. We are not crazy to enjoy a loving relationship, nice car, job, home, and the like: we may simply need to reinvent our view of these things. If we know we are inclined to lose interest, that this is simply our biology at work, perhaps we can begin to transcend the boredom and cultivate within ourselves a state of continued appreciation for these and other good things in our lives. Recognizing that our brains tend to revert to particular perceptions when left untended may encourage us to monitor our own minds as parent watches a child or a shepherd tends to her flock.
We are afraid to lose the people and things we love. This fear is primary. If we didn’t have it, it seems, our ancestors would not have survived to produce us. We may, however, achieve some mastery over this fear by training ourselves to let the sentiment itself go, as much as possible, while preserving sufficient conduct to avoid the loss itself. Emotions, as previously discussed, catalyze behavior conducive to survival. But emotions come with all kinds of baggage, including unhappiness. How do we accomplish this trick? Recognizing in the first instance that, whatever we may lose, we run a good chance of rekindling our love of life itself, of reverting to our “set point”, may be a start. Recognizing further that fear of loss is a particular kind of misery may be another step. Excessive vigilance is life without peace.
If we mislead ourselves by focusing on goals that grow stale, is it possible for us to find new goals that may give rise to more lasting well being? If the tendency of our pleasures to become stale is a function of our neuronal architecture, then the answer may be no. But what if we choose from a menu of things that we enjoy, pursue them, and observe our thoughts and reactions as we go, without judgment, insofar as we can, maintaining awareness of our tendencies to become fatigued and find fault, and nurturing within ourselves a state of appreciation that we are here at all? Gratitude seems to come naturally when we are released from a state of deprivation, torment, or captivity. Perhaps, by reminding ourselves of this capacity we have to appreciate life, we can cultivate a state of gratitude a priori.
The pursuit of happiness may be facilitated by maintaining an ongoing awareness that these factors are in play, that the sensation of well being is in part the consequence of how we think about things, and that it is something we can work at, something that is susceptible to cultivation.
One way to sustain ongoing awareness may be the pursuit of knowledge with an open mind. The more we expose ourselves to the latest discoveries about how things work, including how our own minds function, the more resources we have to grapple with low moods, self doubt, and malaise. Our short term memory regularly clears the way for new data; our long term memory seems at times oddly selective and remote. But a steady influx of new data may serve two purposes: novelty, and salient truths. If we see how things relate to other things we have learned, we may experience the euphoria of discovery, endlessly, as we proceed through our lives. We may or may not therein be rendered any wiser; but we stand a good chance of being made happier.