Happy thou art not; For what thou hast not, still thou strivest to get, and what thou hast, forget’st.” ~William Shakespeare (Measure for Measure, III, i)

A few weeks ago I saw a movie at my local art-house theatre called “Hector & The Search for Happiness.”  It had gotten extremely poor critic reviews but, being the author of a blog with the title ‘Operation UNunhappy,’ I felt somewhat obliged to shell out the $8.50 (for a matinée no less) to see what Hector’s search turned up.

I had high hopes since it is a British film and stars Simon Pegg, but unfortunately the critics got it right on this one: it was a pretty bad movie.  The main character of Hector is a psychiatrist living a perfect life in London with a perfect apartment and a perfect girlfriend and perfectly-neurotic psychiatric patients in his practice, when he suddenly starts to feel that all that perfection has left his life devoid of any true meaning or happiness.  And so he predictably goes on his own eat-pray-love journey under the Tuscan sun, except he decides to go not to Italy but to China (those Tibetan monks always have good insights)…and then to Africa (to a non-specified country, as if everywhere in Africa is exactly the same)…and then finally to Los Angeles (for a head-rattling visit with Captain Von Trapp), before finally heading back to London for a tidy movie happy ending.

Along the way he throws caution (and wisdom) to the wind, naively placing himself into stereotypical tourist-trap predicaments that endanger his life but supposedly make him a happier guy in the end.  At each lesson-learning turn we see a handwritten entry flash on the screen from Hector’s travel journal:  “Happiness is sometimes not knowing the whole story;” “Happiness is feeling completely alive;” and the ever-helpful “Happiness is sweet potato stew.”  Most annoying in the movie however was the plot point that his perfect girlfriend was also miserable simply because she and Hector had decided not to have children, but that by the end of the movie she changed her mind and decided becoming a mother would magically provide her with the ultimate contentment – which of course brought Hector home from his soul-searching journey and they lived happily ever after.  (Insert much eye-rolling here.)

There was one tidbit in the movie that was familiarly thought-provoking, which claimed that we can’t find happiness by trying to avoid or outrun unhappiness.  And at one point in the movie Hector says “The more we focus on our personal happiness the more it is useless.”  I’ve read this train of thought many times – that it’s pointless to actually and actively pursue happiness, because one you begin to search for it, it will naturally evade you.  Can this be true?

If you start looking at happiness proverbs and quotes by those apparently deemed to be experts on the subjects, you start to see a trend to this topic:

  • “The bird of paradise alights only on the hand that does not grasp.” – John Berry
  • “Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
  • “Perfect happiness is the absence of striving for happiness.” – Chuang-Tzu

But if the pursuit of happiness is so useless, then why did our American founders write a Declaration of Independence that guarantees our right to just that?  It’s ingrained in our cultural core to do what makes us happy, and if we’re unhappy, to take steps to rectify it (many very wealthy therapists out there depend on this inherently human struggle).  I think that happiness and the hunt for it is – even if tangentially – what drives every single one of us in all of our actions, whether or not we want to admit that. 

A few weeks ago I was asked to be one of two guest speakers to a university class on the subject of blogging – what is it, why do people blog, what makes for a successful blog, etc.  Our audience was a group of ESL students – people from all over the world that are studying here in America and trying to make a better life for themselves.  The other guest speaker is a coworker of mine in the same office, we’ve worked together for over a year now, but we did not discuss our own personal blogs with each other before the class presentation.  Imagine our mutual surprise when we discovered that both of our blogs deal with the subject of happiness – what is it, why and how do people look for it, what makes for a happy life, etc…  We had to convince the professors and students that we hadn’t planned it that way!

After the class, a young man with a thick foreign accent approached me and wanted to know if my blog story was true: that I had quit my miserable job that was making me sick and consciously left bad things in my life behind in an attempt to be more fulfilled and yes, happier.  He seemed very anxious to know if it had worked – did I feel better, was I happier, was that a good decision?  I could tell he was going through something in his life that was putting him at a crossroads – a place where we have all been at one time or another, no matter what corner of the globe we are from.  Finding our way out of unhappiness is a universal denominator.

I think there is some truth to the proverbs above.  I think if we focus too much on finding happiness that the search ends up being a possible antithesis to the final objective.  But I don’t think pursuing goals and dreams that could possibly make you happier is a bad thing.  Yes we should be happy with and grateful for what we already have, and for the experiences that have shaped us, but is searching for contentment – no matter how one defines it – really such an exercise in futility?  We can’t be happy all the time, that’s completely unrealistic – I know I’m not.  I’m not unhappy all the time either.  Maybe striking the right balance between both states is the real goal?

Or maybe, as American journalist John Gunther once said “All happiness depends on a leisurely breakfast.”  Bon appétit.

perfectbreakfast

 À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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