224. On Happiness

I am a very unhappy person. It’s true. I’m unhappy about a lot of things: Malaysian politics, the fact that I have to wake up early, that I’m not as physically fit as a person my age should be, Malaysian politics, that I’m not making a lot of money through writing, that there are cockroaches in the bathroom, that my brother cannot grasp the simple concept of “screw the goddamn cap back on the toothpaste tube when you’re done”, Malaysian politics, and that the car doesn’t run as smoothly as it used to.

It makes me a very pessimistic person, I suppose. I don’t get excited easily. I don’t get swept away in the emotions of the moment. I’m quick to be dismissive of people, and I cannot bring myself to give a damn about a lot of things.

I’m not angry. Just unhappy. I routinely unfollow people on Twitter and hide updates on my Facebook news feed because there are people more unhappy than I, and they seem to find it necessary to broadcast their unhappiness. For goodness’ sake, I have enough negativity bringing me down already – I don’t need yours.

Somewhere, someone is saying that happiness is a state of being; that it is the journey, not the destination. I’ll tell that person to take their new-age bullshit somewhere far, where unicorns frolic in crystal waters under the arc of the rainbow.

I was on the plane back from Penang 2 Saturdays ago, and I was dismayed, upon arriving at my row, to see that the window seat was already taken. By an elderly lady who appeared to be asleep. I put my bag in the overhead compartment, sat beside her, buckled my seat belt, and resumed my reading of The Wind Through The Keyhole.

At some point during the hour-long flight, the lady woke up and, perhaps thinking that it would be polite to converse with your flight neighbor, began talking to me. At one point, she began to dispense life advice, most of which summed up to: “Just be happy. Even if you’re sad, be happy. Be happy all the time.”

Yeah, lady. When I’m upset, I’ll just flick the happy switch in my brain on, and all the sad will be replaced by the irresistible force of happy.

It is true that many people are unhappy when there are things to be happy about. But I disagree with the notion of “Be happy all the time”. What is this, Narnia? There are plenty of things to be upset about. And there are times when there really is nothing to be happy about.

(“Oh dear. A terrible traffic jam that will surely make me late for that important appointment. On the bright side, I can enjoy the radio a little longer! Oh, joy!”)

Some people subscribe to the notion that “In the end, everyone just wants to be happy”. So why bother with the things in between when you can just skip to the end, right? It’s absurd. You don’t read stories for their endings. You read stories because of the things that leads up to the ending. You don’t be happy for the sake of being happy. You want to be happy because there’s something worth being happy about.

In short, we don’t want to be happy. We want things that will cause us to be happy.

When people attribute “the purpose of life is to be happy” to Aristotle, I imagine the man spins in his grave. It’s a gross mistranslation, similar to bastardizing the golden rule to “Just be nice to one another, y’all”.

My philosophy lecturer (best lecturer I’ve ever had) explained how this works to us:
Why did you take philosophy? So you can pass your course.
Why do you want to pass your course? So you can get your degree.
Why do you want your degree? So you can get a job.
Why do you want a job? So you can make money.
Why do you want to make money? So you can buy things.
Why do you want to buy things? So you can be happy.
Ergo, you took philosophy because you want to be happy. Remember to write that in the course evaluation.

Aristotle suggested that everything we do in life is to attain Eudaimonia – which does not mean “happiness”, though it is a product of it. Eudaimonia can be translated as “good spirited” or “human flourishing”. It is a state of being, namely: healthy, growing, strong, vibrant, sturdy, nourished.

Imagine a large tree in the wilderness, by a creek: its trunk thick and strong, its roots sinking deep, its branches tall and many, its leaves green and healthy. That’s Eudaimonia for the tree. A bald, sick tree with worms eating away at its insides is hardly flourishing, no matter how happy it chooses to be.

This is why “Just be happy” is shitty advice. Yes, make the best out of what you’re given. Understand that life comes with its highs and lows. Accept that disappointment is a part of living. But don’t let anyone trivialize your unhappiness like you don’t have a right to be unhappy. A great many things have been done by very unhappy people, and God help us if we ignore our unhappiness or do nothing about it.

This is what I believe in: unhappiness is the surest indicator that you’re not where you want to be. People will tell you to be content with what you have, but come on – that’s like hitting off-target and telling people that it was what you were aiming for. Discontentment is surely God’s gift to mankind, because without it, we will not strive to improve, to grow, to better ourselves. Contentment comes in season, but today’s excellence is tomorrow’s mediocrity. We must move on. We must grow. We must flourish.

And in our unhappiness, may we attain Eudaimonia.


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