The Link Between Happiness and What Happens
We all crave happiness. We all aspire to be happy. We all want our children to be happy. Happiness is one of our highest values. We even think that we have an inherent right to be happy. We misquote or misunderstand the US Constitution when we speak of our inalienable right to happiness. The second section of the Declaration of Independence reads: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The inalienable right is to the pursuit of happiness, not to happiness itself. Happiness is not a right: it’s a result. Happiness is what we feel when our experiences match our expectations and wishes. When we get what we want, we feel happy. The opposite is equally true: when we get what we don’t want, or don’t get what we do want, then we feel unhappy.
No power on earth can legislate or mandate happiness
No power on earth can legislate or mandate happiness. Earthly powers can legislate conditions under which we are free to pursue the circumstances that we hope will result in our feelings of happiness. The same is true of love. No one can be commanded to love, but we can be commanded to behave in ways in which love becomes possibly more likely to flourish.
So let’s look more closely at happiness resulting. Since my happiness is a result of getting what or enough of what I want, and getting little enough of what I don’t, then my happiness is a measure of the outcome of what happens. Happiness is a feeling that depends entirely on what happens. Thus the link between the words “happiness” and “happens”. This link is not a problem when what happens fits in with my wishes. But when it doesn’t, when what happens leads to my unhappiness, then it’s a problem. To put this differently, unhappiness can mean that I want what has happened to unhappen. If I am able to make something unhappen, I would. And if I succeed at making it unhappen, I restore myself to a state of happiness again.
Happiness is the emotional measure of what happens
An example: my girlfriend dumps me, so I’m unhappy. I change my deodorant, or wardrobe, or behavior, and she changes her mind; she becomes my girlfriend again, and I am happy once more. As long as I am free to change whatever I can in order to restore her love (or tolerance) for me, I have a chance for my happiness. I can do whatever I can to try to have her take me back, but the decision, the choice to take me back and be my girlfriend again, is still hers. My happiness rests in her hands, not mine. She controls my happiness, not me.
As long as my happiness relies on what happens, it rests in the hands of others, of selves other than and outside of my own self. I am not in control of my happiness. This is because I cannot control others, I cannot control what happens to and around me, I cannot control what others do nor what happens in the world. I try to influence what happens, with more or less success, but I cannot control what happens. To the extent that my happiness depends on my experience, on what happens to and around me (which it does, entirely) I do not determine my happiness; others and events do. My happiness is not in my control. I do not control my happiness; others do. Funny, isn’t it? The reality of being out of control of my happiness is a far cry from my claim, my entitlement, my alleged right to happiness. How can I have a right to something that I do not and cannot control?
This is why the wording in the US Constitution is so brilliant. I have an inalienable right to pursue the conditions under which I think and hope the world may treat me in accordance with my wishes and therefore result in my happiness. Happiness is not a right, because I have no right to how others or the world at large treat me, and so I have no right to happiness. I have no more right to happiness than to anything else that belongs to others or to the world and to the universe in general. I have no more right to happiness than I do to warm weather, successful crops or winning a lottery or my girlfriend’s or any one else’s affections. And since happiness is nothing other than a feeling, an emotional response to experience, there is no such thing as a right to the feeling of happiness. No one has a right to a particular feeling. The idea that we have rights to feelings is absurd. It’s like saying that we have a right to sight or sound or thought or growth or misery. As long as my happiness (which is to say my feelings of happiness) is in the hands of others, I have a greater or lesser degree of influence but no control over my happiness.
No one has a right to a winning lottery ticket
My happiness being determined by others, by the world, is not a problem when my experience of and in the world is that others and the world give me what I want or enough of what I want or little enough of what I don’t want so that I feel happy. As long as things remain so, I remain happy and have no complaints and no reason to do anything differently. But what happens when the world gives me what I don’t want, when it gives me sickness, rejection, loss, and so on? Well, then I am moved to try to do something to change my circumstances so as to restore my former state of happiness. I need to change what happens so that I can recapture my happiness. I try and, hopefully, succeed.
The only way to be happy is for your circumstances to line up with your desires. When you’re unhappy, change your circumstances.
But what if I try and fail, if I cannot change the conditions of my life and experience that regulate my happiness? What happens when changing my deodorant, wardrobe, behavior, appearance, lifestyle, job, car, house, friends, or whatever else I can change, doesn’t make my girl take me back? Then what? It is true that there are times in many if not most of our lives when our efforts fail to make the world give us what we need to be happy. We change our circumstances but remain unhappy because our experience of the world still falls short of our wishes, expectations and desires. Then what? Is there something else we can do when trying to change or influence the world fails?
As it happens, there is another approach we can take when the world stops cooperating with us. And that is to stop relying on the world, on others, whom we do not and cannot control, and switch to relying on our own selves. This is because our own selves are the only things in the entire universe that we do control. We are the only source we can rely on for our happiness because only we, and no one else, control ourselves There is no other force in the universe that controls or determines us, only we do.
Switch to relying on yourself as the source of your happiness
If we subscribe to this idea, the next question then is, how? How do we take control of our own selves so that we and not others are responsible for our happiness? What do we need to know and do in order to replace others as our source of happiness and to become our own source?
I will spell this out in subsequent posts.