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Excerpt from "Why? What Your Life Is Telling You about Who You Are and Why You’re Here"

The Pursuit of Happiness

by Matthew McKay, Seán ÓLaoire, and Ralph Metzner


You have been on this planet for some time, and you know one thing very well: it’s hard. In crucial ways, life is different than you would have hoped it would be. Some of the things you sought or dreamed of never happened. Some of the people you loved or counted on the most are gone. And sometimes, in the midst of busy streets and headlong days, you feel solitary.

You feel invisible, as if your struggles and fears were yours alone. And even in the rooms called home, you sense a distance between you and others. Caught in their concerns, they live a life you cannot fully know. And you do the same.

The problem is this: On planet Earth, your pain is your own. Loss, failure, illness, and especially your own death are private experiences. No one can fully share them with you. On some level, much of what we do is an attempt to cope with this. We’re constantly in motion, building emotional, career, and domestic castles to protect ourselves from the massive, uncontrollable forces that surround our lives. We try to connect deeply, intimately. We try to be successful, perhaps even recognized for our accomplishments. And we try to create a home that’s a haven from all that might threaten us.

In the end, despite all of our planning and constant effort, we can’t save ourselves from where we live: this planet and our own fragile bodies. We still face pain—emotional or physical—every day. And everyone around us, no matter how big their houses or cars or jobs, is in exactly the same place.

Cultural Hypnosis

Every culture in every part of the world attempts to answer this question: how best can we deal with our fate? In spite of all of our vulnerabilities and pain, how do we steer our lives toward some purpose? Western cultures generally support the right and need of every individual to pursue happiness. Jeremy Bentham, the philosopher who developed utilitarianism, argued that all political decisions should be based on the “greatest good for the greatest number.” And the idea that government should support our pursuit of happiness is written into the US Declaration of Independence.

As psychological science developed, Sigmund Freud and the psychoanalysts, and B. F. Skinner and the behaviorists, shaped a cultural belief that the main function of a human being is to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Our lives were conceived as a long series of choices to enhance happiness and minimize unnecessary suffering.

Madison Avenue—through constant hypnotic messages in the media—tells us exactly how to do this. We should consume as much as we can afford and then borrow to consume more. The media also tell us that we should have prestigious, powerful, and lucrative employment.

Without that, the message goes, we’ll be reduced to a life of yearning and disappointment. Happiness requires that life be peppered with vacations, toys, and pleasurable events—and that we have machines to do our work. All of this takes money, of course, which becomes a measure of worth.

Perhaps the most important thing of all that we could have or pursue is sex. The media insist on this. Love and belonging are the prize, but sex is the portal, the way to get there. We are taught to see ourselves as failures if we don’t have an attractive partner or the ability to find willing bedmates. By linking happiness to sex and romantic love, the cultural message is that we’ll be locked out of real life satisfaction without this type of intimacy.

The relentless pursuit of happiness is only part of our cultural coaching. The other message is that we must avoid pain. Pain is seen as unnecessary or embarrassing, a product of bad choices or personal failure. When pain comes, we’re encouraged to use analgesics. Take a pill; take a drink. Numb out with TV or the Internet. Buy something. But whatever we do, pain is a sign of failure, and we must stop it.

These cultural injunctions about pain are why it’s so difficult to be sick, old, or sad. As we face necessary losses and grieve over the ways our lives have changed, we are told on some level that we no longer fit, that we should disappear so as not to embarrass ourselves or disturb others.

The Pursuit of Happiness Doesn’t Work

Chasing happiness doesn’t help us find it. You already suspect this. You’ve been busy coping with difficult challenges and seeking a good life, a happy life. Yet you are often tired, at times sad. No matter what you do, pain continues to show up, and happiness seems momentary, ephemeral. To see why, it might be useful to differentiate among happiness, joy, and pleasure.

Let’s start with joy. Joy is not happiness. Rather, it is the beauty of the moment, fully experiencing what’s happening right now. That’s why people enjoy sports, hobbies, traveling, kissing, creating, walking in the woods, watching a sunset, and so on. All of these experiences keep us in the now, focused on our senses, fully engaged in the present. We aren’t thinking about bad things that happened in the past or dangers lurking in the future. We aren’t sad or anxious; we’re just here, feeling and fully living this moment in time.

You can tell why joy doesn’t last. Sooner or later we leave the moment. We put down our quilting or our paintbrushes. The tennis game or the kiss ends. The sunset fades; the air gets cold and we go inside. But here’s the paradox: joy doesn’t end because those moments end. Joy ends because we leave the moment. The trip or tennis game or mountain hike is merely a vehicle to keep us in the now. While our attention might simply move on to the next moment, it usually doesn’t. Instead, our minds slip to the future or the past, pulling up worries or judgments about ourselves or others. Joy doesn’t last, because without some focusing activity, we leave the moment. And only in the moment is joy possible.

Pleasure, too, is often confused with happiness. There are pleasure centers in the brain that get stimulated by the release of key neurotransmitters (endorphins). Subjectively, this often feels like excitement. While we sometimes call this feeling “happiness,” it is not an emotion. It’s a neurological experience that cannot last. The reason is this: No matter how intensely pleasurable something is, the body and nervous system habituate to it. We get used to the stimulation, and our excitement eventually drops to baseline—even if the pleasurable stimulation continues at a high level.

All mammals desensitize to stimuli. This process of getting used to everything—pain as well as pleasure—helps us survive. Sooner or later the nervous system calms down, no matter how impactful the experience might be. Joy and pleasure fade, regardless of what we do. While they are likely to return, we cannot keep these experiences.

Now, finally, let’s look at happiness. The emotion of happiness isn’t a peak experience like joy or pleasure. When people describe the experience of happiness, they often use the word “contentment”: a feeling that things are as they should be, that our lives are right and we are somehow living in a way that makes sense. But what is contentment—happiness— about, and how do we create it?

There are two kinds of contentment: happiness with what happens, the events of your life; and happiness with how you’ve chosen to live, the things you do in your life. We have little control over the contentment derived from events. Our children will or won’t graduate from college, we will or won’t get seriously ill, our mortgages are or aren’t underwater, and we have or haven’t suffered a family loss. But what we can control, and the happiness that’s within our reach, derives from the ways we choose to live.

Happiness comes and can be sustained by making choices that are aligned with the ideals that matter most to us: our life purpose. This kind of happiness is not ephemeral. It can’t be taken away. No misfortune or illness can strip it from us. No rejection, no job loss, no market plunge can touch it. This happiness rests on the knowledge that regardless of the outcome, we have done what mattered. We have acted on our highest values.

Staying Happy

Happiness is your birthright; it is the natural state of the soul. This deep, core serenity can remain undisturbed by the trials and setbacks of living. In fact this serenity, this sense of groundedness and contentment, can actually grow from hardships and the ways in which we face them. It can grow from pain. The trick is to learn how to mine all experiences, pleasurable or painful, and find their embedded gold. Every experience presents an opportunity to act from your core purpose. So it is not where you look that brings happiness, but how you look. If you don’t know how to look for these opportunities, you can search everywhere and find nothing. When you do learn how to look, you can search everywhere and find everything.

While there is a direct, positive correlation between happiness and alignment with your life purpose, there is a direct, negative correlation between happiness and the pleasure-pain agenda. We can spend our time searching for ways of protecting and pleasuring ourselves, yet find security and serenity evasive. When we are seduced by society’s clarion calls offering pain relief or consumer pleasures, we become obsessed with having something that doesn’t exist: a life where pleasure is constant and pain can always be kept at bay. This is the road to suffering.

Staying happy requires abandoning the pleasure-pain agenda and seeking—in every situation—the chance to do what aligns with your deepest values.

Matthew McKay, PhD, is a professor at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, CA. He has authored and coauthored numerous books, including The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook, Self-Esteem, Thoughts and Feelings, When Anger Hurts, and ACT on Life Not on Anger. He has also penned two fiction novels, Us and Wawona Hotel. McKay received his PhD in clinical psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology, and specializes in the cognitive behavioral treatment of anxiety and depression. He lives and works in the Bay Area.

Seán ÓLaoire, PhD, is a Catholic priest and licensed clinical psychologist specializing in transpersonal psychology. ÓLaoire regularly lectures and conducts scientific research on the effects of prayer. In addition, he is cofounder and spiritual director of Companions on the Journey (COJ), a popular Silicon Valley spiritual community which seeks to recognize the God/divinity within the self. He has a private counseling practice in Los Altos, CA.

Ralph Metzner, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, CA. He has authored and coauthored several books, including The Unfolding Self, The Well of Remembrance, Green Psychology, The Roots of War and Domination, Know Your Type, and Sacred Vine of Spirits.

Why? What Your Life Is Telling You about Who You Are and Why You’re Here, by Matthew McKay, Seán ÓLaoire, and Ralph Metzner, is published by New Harbinger Publications and is available at all stores and online


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