What is a post-happiness way of living?...
In my last blog post, I talked about my experience of two different modes of beings – the “control mode” and “connection mode”. I mentioned that I used to think life was a matter of hacking the control mode so I could get as much stuff done and make as much progress as possible. My goal was to maximise those times were life felt good and I was achieving what I wanted. The reward for getting this mode of being down was none other than happiness. Who wouldn’t want that?
This post is about I came to not want happiness – or, at least, not a kind of happiness that comes from the control mode of being. Most of what we are told about happiness is about control. Even the question “What makes you happy?” is about how you can get something in order to be happy. It is about having and achieving – both control-based concepts. To move away from the control mode of being, we need to move move beyond this kind of happiness. I like to call it a “post-happiness” way of living.
How did I come to believe in post-happiness? Well, it was a long journey. And one, I might add, that would’ve been a lot shorter if I hadn’t insisted on reading so many books. But, hey, I guess that’s just my style.
I started off convinced that happiness – feeling good and satisfied with life – was all that mattered, and that I could find scientifically proven ways to be happy. In 2010, I started a PhD of happiness and its function. I thought that, if I could figure out what happiness was for then I could figure out how to be happy by doing more of whatever our emotional state wanted us to do.
And I kind of did. I figured out that our emotional state has two main functions, both of which point to ways in which we can be happier. First, our emotions are designed to help us make progress in our short-term goals and desires. Each time we complete a task or get something we want, we feel good. Second, our moods are designed to help us secure our long-term goals and safety. If we are generally moving in the right direction, we feel okay. If not, we have an underlying sense of unease or anxiety. Both surface and underlying kinds of happiness are to do with the direction our lives are travelling in – are things getting better or worse right now and for the foreseeable future? The upshot is, if we want to be happier, we need to get better at making progress in our goals and values.
Unfortunately, reading that last sentence now makes me feel kind of sick. It’s so clinical and – to a certain extent – pointless. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to the story…
After completing my PhD, I was happy to have found my answer. I found that happiness was more about improvement, not a fixed state of affairs. There is no such thing “living happily ever after”. You could be a billionaire, but still be unhappy if your life is getting worse. Or you could have next to nothing, but still be happy if things are getting better.
The problem was that, in my personal life, I was already starting to see the limitations – or, perhaps better, the implications – of this conclusion. I’d got quite good at maximising the amount of progress I experienced on a day-to-day basis. I’d implemented a lot of the techniques and practices that positive psychologists or mental health professionals would advise today. I’d make sure to adopt only SMART goals – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound – and to develop skills that created a sense of flow, and to be grateful for all the things I’d achieved each day. I was also pursuing long-term goals that would help me continue to make progress in the future, such as progressing my career in wellbeing measurement and policy and prioritising my relationships with loved ones over material things. All good things, right? And I was genuinely happier as a result. There was just one problem: it was all bullshit.
I realised this when things went wrong – or, as Pema Chodron so wonderful puts it, “when things fall apart”. Whenever things were difficult in my job or in an intimate relationship, the idea of doing something to improve things seemed to miss the point. “Shouldn’t I be paying attention to the fact that things aren’t going well?” I’d think in the back of my mind as I was composing my to-do list to make everything better again. The happiness-maximising strategy seemed to be missing out something really important.
The penny finally dropped after watching an interview with Google executive-turned-happiness-guru Mo Gawdat talk about his so-called “happiness formula” on channel 4 news (here’s the clip). It’s a good formula for how to be happy, but it’s also bullshit. Gawdat described how he came up with the formula after unexpected losing his son during a routine operation. After a period of grief, he realised that no amount of happiness could bring his son back, so he decided to start improving his life in whatever way he could, little by little, each day.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against Mo Gawdat. I’m glad he found an approach that worked for him – whatever get’s you through. But, for me, I watched the chip looking at a man in pain who wouldn’t let himself grieve unless it was productive and I couldn’t help shout at the screen, “Just let yourself be sad! It’s okay to be sad!” Of course, I wasn’t shouting it for Mo – maybe he’d been plenty sad already. I was shouting it for me.
The problem with happiness is it misses out half the world. It is the end product of controlling everything in our lives to our liking – sorting our the entire universe into “good things” and “bad things” and working progressively hard to try and eliminate all the bad stuff. This is not a terrible idea. But taken too far – like I had done – and it destroys the ability to take in all the bad things, to really feel them, listen to them and, ultimately, learn from them.
Since moving away from happiness and control, I’ve been able to appreciate life – the good and the bad things – in a completely different way. I’m not trying to get somewhere all the time – to maximise, to efficiently achieve all my goals. In fact, a post-happiness way of living has helped me question the validity of my goals. Am I really doing what matters, for myself and the planet? Am I really acting with love, for myself and others? These are questions that either don’t get asked or have very different answers when all that matters is making things better in whatever way possible.
Post-happiness is about letting go of control and, with it, the promise of being happy – the idea that, one day, we will have achieved the life we want or be the person we are supposed to be. The promise of happiness is bullshit – life is too fragile, messy and complex for that. Thinking “if only...” or “one day...” is an illusion. But life is still worth living. All of it, the goods and the bads. I am so very glad to have discovered this equally tragic and beautiful post-happiness world.