Jonathan Hall

The Dangers of Pursuing Happiness

Jonathan Hall
The Dangers of Pursuing Happiness

There's a scene in the movie Groundhog Day where Phil (Bill Murray) says to Rita (Andie Macdowell), "No matter what happens tomorrow or the rest of my life, I'm happy now because I love you." In light of the deeper philosophical lessons of the movie, what he says stretches beyond the doting nature of the developing romance between the two. In context of the events that lead up to that moment, in essence what he's saying is, "despite my current situation and the uncertainty of the future, I am happy."

Phil is tormented by the cyclical suffering of reliving each day in a miserable town filled with irritating people. Of course the reality is it's not that bad of a place and the people aren't that terrible. it is his reality that the situation he is in is so dreadful or as Shakespeare puts it, "there is no good or bad. rather thinking that makes it so." His happiness (or lack thereof) is contingent on external factors. This is how we apply and evaluate our own happiness. Take for example the current cultural narrative on acquiring happiness based on the following situational blueprints:

  • Go to college, get a job, get a promotion = Be Happy
  • Committed relationships, get engaged, get married, have kids = Be Happy
  • Have things, acquire more things = Be Happy.

Getting a good job, earning advance degrees, having kids and buying a boat are great things to have and can bring immediate happiness. However, as a matter of sustaining long-term happiness, they do very little. This in-vogue formula where happiness is the sum of sequential milestones is dangerous or ineffective at best.

What if instead the formula looked like this:

Be happy, get a good job, be happy, get married, be happy, have kids, be happy, get a promotion, be happy...

If happiness is only attained at the end of culminating acquisitions, we will never arrive to the point where we can truly be happy.

Nick Saban, coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide utilizes a very simple philosophy called "The Process". It refers to not focusing on winning a National Championship or winning the SEC Championship or winning the SEC West or even winning the next game. "The Process" means breaking the short-term and long-term goals down to the smallest unit of the season: each play of the game; do your job.

Have goals. In fact have an ultimate goal. But only focus on the process it takes to achieve the goals. This sort of incremental attention can be of benefit to living a meaningful life as well. If achieving milestone goals along the way to winning a National Championship is like working your way though promotions to becoming the CEO of a company, then a football player focusing on each play is like being fully present and living for the only thing that is guaranteed -- the current moment.

Happiness is being fully present and understanding the dichotomy of what you can control and accepting the things you cannot..

If happiness is only attained at the end of culminating acquisitions, we will never arrive to the point where we can truly be happy. There is always more money to make, higher prestige of social status, bigger promotions and more degrees to pursue.  How many times have you thought to yourself, "If I only had ___ I would be happy." or "if this current situation was only better, I would be happy." or even more damaging "this person used to make me happy...". All of these can bring temporal joy to your life. But as a source of sustained and true contentment, these superficial contingencies are an impossible burden for anyone or anything to live up to. One must find happiness in their current situation and navigate through life enjoying the enhancements as they are earned along the way. Happiness is being fully present and understanding the dichotomy of what you can control and accepting the things you cannot or as Viktor Frankl puts it, "...happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue."

The turning point in The Goundhog is when Phil begins to change his attitude about his current situation. He helps other people, engages in genuine conversations, seeks to understand other's feelings and ultimately sees the circumstance that he thought to be so undesirable is not only not that bad, but quite endearing. This only happens when he stops fighting external factors and changes his mindset. For the longest time he was arrested by his perceived negative situation. It's only when he adapts to the situation, he creates momentum to free himself from the perpetual suffering.

The Florida Keys are a very beautiful destination. Here the keyword is destination; there is a path you must take. It is possible and very rewarding to drive down US Highway 1  the entire way along the eastern coast to get there. However, you would be doing yourself a massive disservice if you only focused on The Keys. You would miss out on the antique and vintage beauty of St. Augustine. You would miss out on the beautiful willow trees covered in Spanish moss in Palm Coast. You would miss out on the science-rich sights of Cape Canaveral. You would miss the gorgeous skyline of downtown Miami. And most of all, you would miss out on precious time spent with the passengers you are traveling with. As Marcus Aurelius puts it:

"Very Little is needed to make a happy life; it's all within yourself, your way of thinking."