The Problem with Happiness

It was a magazine that drew my gaze. On the media stand near the checkout aisle of my local Whole Foods Market, a new periodical titled Live Happy sat perched. An ordinary looking woman smiled on the cover, her posed grin striking me as rather flat and plastic, her eyes somewhat less than animated. “Begin Your Year Of Happiness Now” urged the tagline in bold font.

I stopped and scanned the publication’s front without picking it up, noting all the articles on how to be happy, and felt an immediate tightening in my gut—a visceral, somatic response. Then I walked off towards the produce section, a half-full, green plastic shopping basket in one hand, mindful of my inner reaction and curious about what the magazine had triggered in me.

Wandering amid the tidy rows and bins stacked high in opulent American style with picture perfect fruits and vegetables, I selected a couple of long, slender, Japanese eggplants (aubergines, I still call them), admiring their glossy, deep purple hue, deciding they would become the basis of dinner that evening. Meanwhile, my thoughts leapt to the number of ‘tweets’ and Twitter profiles I’ve recently encountered in my social media time (a requisite part of building an author’s platform nowadays)—loudly trumpeting the power of choosing your thoughts, focusing on happiness, actually ‘willing’ yourself to be happy, and never to entertain a sad or lonely thought.

Light chasers, I call them. Encountering these online tweets and profiles, it’s a similar tightening reaction I feel in my gut.

Mind you, I’m not opposed to happiness. I’m quite fond of it. Really, who doesn’t want to be happy? I think it’s fair to say that we would nearly all prefer to be joyous and content rather than sad, blue or depressed (or any number of more challenging emotions). And yes, I do believe that we hold tremendous power to change our thoughts, to choose how we direct our energies.

Wildly running from shadows and soul...” says the voice inside my head.

Despite our growing agnostic impulse, we as a culture are largely addicted to ‘lightchasing’ headinhands—reaching for the Upperworld, transcendent realms of religion, spirituality, and New Age thought. We avoid the descent into darkness and our own Shadow where many of our own troubles lay tangled and waiting. Rather, we tend to believe that we can simply transcend or rise above them, focusing instead on happy thoughts or the intention to “be here now.”

The realm of soul is decidedly one of shadows and mystery, a wellspring of creativity quietly bubbling (or wildly boiling) in the subconscious. It is our deep connection with nature along with the misty world of archetypes and myths, those timeless and cross-cultural stories that illuminate some essential aspect or potential of the human journey.

Pioneer of psychology and early explorer of the unconscious, CG Jung, observed astutely, “People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own soul.”

There is much about our culture that is adolescent. Pathologically so. Collectively, we seem to subscribe to the notion that if we’re not happy, then something must be wrong. (Admittedly, much is wrong or broken, an opportunity that begs us to look closely at the roots of the problem which, mostly, is us.)

We have lost the wild, the sacred, and a sense of alluring mystery. The vast majority of people find themselves mired in mindless, soul-numbing jobs of aggravating routine. Regardless of the size of their paycheck, most are struggling to discover some sort of meaning and, whether clumsily or gracefully, holding the tension between despair (or “lostness”) and some kind of hope.

We feel sluggish, static and stuck, and believe that we can alleviate our depressions or impotence with the magic of a pharmaceutical pill (a message broadcast everywhere to us not only by advertisers but our own medical establishment). What most people want is simply an escape from their existence, a pleasant and mindless distraction. Perhaps a tropical holiday. Or the shiny allure of a new object of desire, human or otherwise.

In our utterly domesticated culture, automation and technology have made our lives supremely comfortable (albeit static), but have not moved us any closer to finding the elusive meaning. Less and less are we inclined to work at something, and in our climate controlled zones, less and less do we have much tolerance for any sort of discomfort, whether physical or emotional.

Keepers of wisdom tell us that there is often something profound to be gained by not pushing away that which feels unpleasant or uncomfortable, but rather to lean into it. To sit and experience the truth of a thing or challenging situation (emotions, included), to consider our response—particularly when our reaction is highly charged, or it feels that we are being broken open in some way—we can discover what might be underneath it. Often there waits some aspect of ourself that we have repressed, hidden away, or that has hitherto been unrecognizable to us.

Yet if we choose to turn away, to follow a sunny path with a nicely-lettered sign (or glossy magazine) that reads “Live Happy,” we miss this important opportunity for growth and transformation—difficult and challenging as it may be. From the soul’s point of view, it is often through being broken open that we emerge from a life too small for us and step into something much larger and vital. Wild. Authentic. Indeed, sometimes it is only by diving into the dark waters of our deep grief that we discover the hidden, luminous pearl of our most essential gifts.

As I have written elsewhere:

Consider that the soul’s primary objective is not happiness but rather expansive wholeness through embodiment and authentic action—having the largest conversation possible with the world, human and other. It is true that we often feel immense happiness and joy while doing our soul’s work and art—once we have discovered what that is—perceived as a sense of openness, connection, pleasure and power. Too, there are often adverse passages and intense struggle. The repeated task of recognizing our patterns and finding new ways to engage with personal power is its own real work. One will predictably venture across empty plains of loneliness, stumble through tangled woods of dark despair, and cross turbulent oceans of deep uncertainty. Yet the soul and sense of self grows through these challenging landscapes that we traverse, especially if we stay open in body, breath and awareness.

Even if we decide upon the sunlit and open path, often the Mystery has other plans for our soulful growth. Recall fair Persephone, innocently picking flowers in the sunny meadow when the earth suddenly splits wide in a great dark fissure, from whence issues mighty Hades and his thundering, dark chariot bearing down on her. Attempting to flee, she is abducted by the Lord of the Underworld, her freshly gathered blossoms scattered upon the ground, and carried off to be his bride in the gloom far from dayworld realms.

Chaos always overturns the apple cart.

A significant part of our cultural distaste for the depths of soul is that we have long ago lost any real ‘rites of passage’ or sense of soulful initiation. Indeed, soulfully initiated adults—those who have descended into the Underworld and faced their own Shadow, been dismembered in some way and then re-membered, who return bearing a boon to offer—are rare in our society. Similarly the dismaying shortage of stewards of the conscious, multidimensional masculine—those playful, compassionate, deeply feeling, strong and occasionally fierce men who serve as role models for an evolved masculinity. They are the ones who can guide the younger generation through a meaningful initiation, and welcome them upon their return to a society that doesn’t really understand (and fears their own depths).

Both men and women—an entire society, really—are withering on the vine for our dearth of emotional and soulful education. Without a soulful initiation, a taste of the deeper mysteries in love and life, we are presented only with the shallow options of a materialistic, narcissistic culture. We remain intent on taking rather than giving. Too, we are besieged by the idea that we should be happy yet we lack a valid understanding of what such happiness entails. (Just consider those people who on a material plane have nearly everything yet aren’t even close to being content, let alone happy.) And few of us understand the seeming paradox that the more deeply we feel those less comfortable aspects like sadness, anger and grief, the more fully we can actually experience happiness and joy.

I think of it as widening our emotional bandwidth… and soulfully at odds with ‘lightchasing’.

Among their many other notable traits, Soul Artists navigate the passages of life where they feel less than happy, less than inspired, for they understand that there is still a gift to be discovered. Living on equal terms with joy and sorrow, they are willing to dance with shadow as well as light. Such soulful individuals realize the value in being stretched or cracked open, while accepting that it is seldom easy or painless. The edge is where we grow. Soul Artists “lean in” rather than push something away, knowing that ultimately they will be the better for it. Rather than Live Happy, their motto is Live Whole.

Gentle reader, here’s hoping that you celebrate the bliss of happiness when it finds you, that you welcome it with open arms like a lover. And may you also embrace all the other emotions that arise, recognizing each simply as weather that blows down from the mountain—raining on the campfire, making puddles and mud, and blowing away the tent. Meanwhile, the dance goes on.