CAN I WILL HAPPINESS?
People often have an acquisitive view of happiness — that happiness comes from getting or achieving things. The word “acquisitive” has some pejorative undertones which I do not intend. The things sought can be “base” like pleasure, or they can be “noble” like a desire to help others.
Unfortunately, this approach is not completely in our hands. For example, if we seek love, those we love may not reciprocate. Or if we seek money, opportunities for making it may not arise. The result is failure. This failure can cause suffering like sorrow, anger and frustration. What’s more, even if we get what we want, we can lose it which also causes suffering. This is especially nasty because we often take what we have for granted, meaning we no longer get any pleasure from it, but we still suffer if we lose it — a no-win situation. Worse still, the possibility of failure and loss also cause suffering, like worry or stress.
This problem was long known, and many responses were developed, most based on the belief that happiness comes from within. Yet many of them are curiously roundabout. For instance, Buddhism tries to transcend desire by transcending identity. Stoicism treats the will to virtue as the sole good. What about a direct approach of simply willing happiness?
If happiness is biochemistry, then can’t we engage in practices to manipulate our state to a happy one?
Sonja Lyubomirsky did some studies that suggest happiness is in smaller intentional activities, rather than accomplishing big life goals.. She provides several such strategies, one of which is especially interesting: act happy.
Fake it ’till you make it? Does it work? If so, it may offer another perspective that ties emotions with acts. In fact, this might explain why even mental paths like Buddhism have action components.
This also ties in with the Two State Theory of emotion which suggests emotion is an interpretation of bodily state and environmental cues. This seems to restore intentionality to the mix.
Maybe I have to act happy until I believe it? Maybe I have to tell myself I am happy until I believe it? If happiness and unhappiness are voluntary states that seem involuntary due to habit, then maybe they need to be approached as habits, to be created or altered through repetition and awareness of cues? In fact, the role of awareness in disrupting habits is interesting, given its role in paths like Buddhism.
If happiness is tied to belief, can I will a new belief? Maybe I cannot, but maybe i can choose my belief policies. For example, Buddhism’s teachings on dissatisfaction can be seen as an attempt to install a new belief policy by looking at all experience through this lens and thus building the right belief. After all, one can see happiness in life if one looks, but one can also see unhappiness — it depends on how one chooses to see it. Glass half empty or half full? Life supports both interpretations, we choose the one most conducive to our goals.
So why didn’t ancient philosophies try this? After all, if happiness is mental, and if the mind is under our control, the first thing to try is to will happiness. Why work on undermining desires, reactions, and smaller acts? Stoicism seems to have tried, as one of its strategies is to wish for things to be as they are, but even that is a bit indirect.
Also, why do I resist? A part of me does not like the idea of intentionally reprogramming myself for happiness. Is this another meta-belief that happiness must be out there? Is reprogramming open to all, but is subject to the one underlying belief that happiness must be found? Is our challenge to really change this belief about happiness?