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Aug 03
Opinion Pieces
The Pathology of Happiness
A closer look at cultural conceptions related to happiness and contentment

by Larry Barnett

When an idea, an object, a substance, or an emotion preoccupies consciousness to the near exclusion of anything else, we call it an obsession. And when an obsession becomes a compulsion so powerful as to assume the driving force of consciousness – even when harmful to oneself or others – we call it pathological.

Addiction to alcohol, opiates, sex, or gambling is pathological, and the disease model of “illness” guides 12-step treatment modalities like Alcoholics Anonymous. Binge eating, anorexia, bulimia, detox diets, and other food-related compulsions are referred to as eating disorders, and are approached as pathologies to be treated. Emotional conditions such as depression, paranoia, and habitual lying are similarly classified, and are treated medically through psychotherapy and pharmaceuticals.

All these pathologies and the ways they are handled reflect the establishment of social norms particular to western culture. In other societies where cultural beliefs differ, social norms differ as well: what we classify as pathology, other cultures might view as possession, witchcraft, spiritual calling, karma, or sainthood. Hence, the “tyranny of normal” establishes a social and psychological standard, the lens through which we judge ourselves and others.

And what of happiness? Is the idea of happiness simply another manifestation of our cultural lens, or is it, as some profess, a universal virtually instinctual drive?

There is no question that the experience of pleasure has its biological side. Sweetness of taste, for example, appears to be a primal sensory experience of pleasure. So too, the experience of soaking in warm water brings pleasure, as does a cold glass of water on a hot day. Through scientific reductionism, it is possible to bring any form of pleasure down to little more than its chemical basis in the human brain and body.

My query, however, has more to do with happiness in the psychological sense, for we are repeatedly told that happiness is what we should pursue and that happy is how we should feel. Happiness, conventionally, has been established as the norm against which all other emotions are to be judged. Billions of dollars are spent each year on advertising, to reinforce our happiness habit; we’re addicted to the ideal of happiness, and the money associated with it makes the world go ’round. It all feels quite pathological.

While I’m sure it is a simplification on his part, even the Dalai Lama has said that “all beings seek happiness,” this despite the Buddha’s teachings that all beings suffer. Perhaps part of what Dalai Lama means to say is that all beings prefer not to suffer, but compulsively pursuing happiness also brings suffering; this is at the center of the Buddha’s teaching of the Truth of Suffering.

In the animated movie “Inside Out,” primal emotions are personified into human-like characters: Joy, Anger, Disgust, Fear, and Sadness. Together they comprise personality. Joy initially holds center stage, but by the end of the film Sadness is revealed as the glue that holds personality together.

When, then, does the pursuit of happiness become pathological, and is it really happiness we seek, or contentment? Happiness has an intoxicating manic quality about it, an elevation of mood combined with a sense of stimulation. Accordingly, ads for fast food and alcohol are entertaining and dripping with visual flavor, as are most commercials. The not-so-subtle message is that happiness comes through the accumulation of things, experiences, and “friends” on Facebook. Our pursuit of happiness has become the pursuit of consumption.

Contentment differs; it denotes satisfaction and relaxation. Its primary emotional quality is not intoxicated, manic, nor elevated, but a comfortable sense of “enough.” Contentment, it would seem, is the truest and healthiest form of happiness. Pass it on.

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2 responses to “ The Pathology of Happiness ”
  1. Larry Barnett
    Aug 4, 2017

    Thanks for your comment. Admittedly, generalizations break down when we look at the particular and move into subjective space. That said, contentment need not imply stasis or immobility; rather, it can be simply relaxing into the moment, engaged awareness absent of grasping. “Enough” does not necessarily imply an effort to engineer anything and can instead comprise openness and a natural sense of gratitude. The effort of this short essay is to explore our cultural happiness “habit” and the ways in which that sense of purpose can become unhealthy.

  2. These terms get confusing. Your description of happiness as “intoxicating manic” seems to equate with pleasure. Is contentment better? Is it manic happiness when we feast on a quart of ice cream but reasonable contentment when we pace ourselves and settle for a cookie? Isn’t contentment just the lull between pleasure and pain? And who can stand contentment for long? There’s no sense of purpose there. We quickly cook up a drama of happy vs sad to escape the paucity of self-confirmation in our “successful” contentment. So isn’t fixation on reference point and self-confirmation the real problem? How can we be happy OR content if we try to engineer our lives for minimal discomfort at the cost of nowness?

    I recall CTR once saying in a Tantra Group talk that (paraphrasing) he was surprised how much people were still concerned with happy and sad, and that they should know better. I’ve found that to be a good reminder. And I don’t see any reason to make an exception for “contentment” as being a worthwhile goal from a Dharmic point of view.

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