Do You Have To Be Happy To Live A Good Life?

I have to admit, that despite my own generally positive disposition, the current societal focus on ‘Happiness’ and the pursuit of living a Happy life, pushes my buttons. There seems to be a constant flow of happiness mantras almost everywhere we look. We are told that if we want to change our life around it is as easy as “Simply replace any negative thoughts with positive ones – and just watch how your life changes”, or “Decide to be Happy”. But of course life isn’t really that easy.

Hugh Mackay, a sociologist and author, writes in his recent book “The Good Life” about how to live a good life, by which he means a life of wholeness; one that includes the full range of human emotion not just happiness and fulfilment but “sadness, disappointment, frustration, and failure; all of those things which make us who we are.”

He argues that the current social pursuit of Happiness is actually a dangerous idea, as “Happiness and Victory and Fulfilment are nice little things that also happen to us, but they don’t teach us much.”

Indeed, in Buddhism, suffering is considered necessary for learning. Happiness does not last forever, and it does not stop suffering. In fact Buddhists believe that the way to end suffering is to first accept the fact that suffering is actually a fact of life.

But it seems we humans find it difficult to sit with this notion. Yes, we do try to avoid the suffering that life sometimes brings us; sadness, anger, frustration, and anxiety are emotions that often fill us with fear and dread. They are far from pleasant, and if we listen to the world around us, we could easily assume they are not good for us at all.

Russ Harris, author of “The Happiness Trap” and world-renowned trainer in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, says that although we tend to hold a belief that it is normal to be happy, “Trying to be perpetually positive can be downright stressful!”.

He argues that there four myths that underpin this belief:

Happiness is the natural state for human beings.
If you’re not happy, you’re defective.
To create a better life, we must get rid of negative feelings.
You should be able to control what you think and feel.

It’s certainly true, that if one had a choice, one would probably not likely choose a path of suffering.

However, much as we may not like to accept it, we do know that suffering is a part of life. And unfortunately, some people seem to experience more than their fair share of it. It would seem incredibly dismissive to encourage such an individual to simply “Decide to be Happy” or “Change Negative Thoughts to Positive Ones”. So what is the alternative?

As Russ Harris describes, from the perspective of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, being willing to make room for negative thoughts and feelings can actually allow us to expand our experience of a rich, meaningful life. He argues that “Willingness doesn’t mean you like, want or approve of unpleasant thoughts and feelings. It means you allow them, so you can do what matters.”

So, rather than living a happy life, live a mindful life. If we are open to our own suffering then what we can experience through such discomfort is sometimes incredible.

It is only through the experience of contrast that we can truly know something. Consider the sayings, “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone”, and “It’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.” Ironically, even with all our myths about happiness, we humans also know the importance of learning through difficult experiences!

If we don’t allow ourselves to experience something, we don’t get to learn how important it may be for us, even if that learning occurs through suffering. Knowing what is important, what gives value and meaning to our lives doesn’t come to us in a void. It comes through experiencing the full range of emotion, through difficulty, challenge and achievement.

So, if we allow ourselves to experience the negative things in life, to embrace them as part of our human existence, as a necessary part of living an enriched life, then we are living a life of wholeness.

We are living as a whole being. And sometimes, just sometimes, through the suffering comes not just an experience of happiness or gratitude, but also a richness of experience that we could not have imagined.