Happiness is an illusion, here’s why you should seek contentment instead
Having worked as a psychiatrist for over four decades and got to know dozens of men, women, and children of diverse backgrounds and with unique life stories, I have witnessed many a sad narrative, although suicide has mercifully been a rare event.
These experiences, in tandem with a lifelong fascination with what makes people tick, have led me most reluctantly to the judgement that while we may savour happiness episodically, it will invariably be disrupted by unwelcome negative feelings. Still, most of humankind will continue to harbour the expectation of living happily and remain oblivious that this wishful fantasy is an unconscious way of warding off the threat of psychic pain.
Rather than confront and demoralise those who have sought my help, I have gently but honestly responded to their plaintive yearning (“all I want is just to be happy”), by highlighting an inherent human sentiment. Namely that clinging to the fiction of being able to avoid suffering and enjoying a continuing state of pleasure is tantamount to self-deception.
I have offered them the hope – but not a guarantee – that they have the potential to lead a more fulfilling life than hitherto by participating in a challenging, and at times even distressing process of self-exploration whose purpose is to enhance self understanding and acceptance of the reality-bound emotional state I call contentment.
You may retort: “But you treat people who are miserable, pessimistic and self-deprecating, surely you must be hopelessly biased.” I would readily understand your reaction but suggest that all of us, not just those in treatment, crave happiness and are repeatedly frustrated by its elusiveness.
As the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud emphasised in his 1930 essay, Civilization and Its Discontents, we are much more vulnerable to unhappiness than its opposite. That’s because we are constantly threatened by three forces: the fragility of our physical self, “doomed” by ageing and disease; the external world, with its potential to destroy us (through floods, fires, storms and earthquakes, for example); and our unpredictably complicated relationships with other people (regarded by Freud as the most painful source of unhappiness).
So, am I simply a misanthrope? I hope not but I am inclined to agree with Elbert Hubbard, the American artist and philosopher, who said, “Life is just one damn thing after another”.