The Lie We Believe About Human Happiness…

I have a running joke with some people in my life that I am actually going to start telling the truth of who I am on my social media sites. When asked what he left out of his memoir Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller jokingly said, “The truth.” Likewise, the same is true with social media. We only post the best parts of our lives, we post the parts of who we want to be with the world. Our social media selves are actual selves we wish to be true. What we project onto the screen is the person we desire to be. I don’t want to start posting Eminem lyrics on my Twitter account. But, I have my Eminem Pandora station on more often than I would admit to the world. Instead, the cool thing is to post lyrics from Bon Iver, because the cool kids all listen to Bon Iver. And, I would never dare share my anxieties, fears, paranoia‘s, and depressions with social media. The part of me is what Carl Jung would call, “The dark side.” The social media self is, to some extent, a lie. A lie to the world, and even a lie to ourselves.

And, so I believe the same is true for most people and their happiness. Most people have a belief that happiness comes through the pursuit of pleasure. I agree with the Christian philosopher J. Budziszewski when he writes this:

“The last time I asked my students, “What is happiness?” the first half-dozen all gave variations on the answer, “Freedom from pain and suffering.” The negative element so filled their eyes that they were completely unable to suggest anything positive that happiness might mean.

“My guess is that students have lived all their young lives in pursuit of pleasure — as the young generally do– but with less restraint from our crumbling conventions than the young have lived their lives in previous generations. Consequently, even at this tender age, they have begun to experience the hedonistic paradox, which usually kicks in much later. He who makes pleasure the object of his life eventually finds that it evaporates: he who fails to distinguish between good and bad pleasures ends in misery. Although my students don’t formulate the paradox explicitly, they feel it in their bones.”

I agree with Thomas Merton when he says, “Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.” But the only person who knows balance, order, rhythm and harmony knows to create a flow of life. To let life come to them and through them. To accept anything and everything in life. We spend so much time resisting our pain, our anxiety, our fears, that it causes us even more pain. As Carl Jung says, “If you resist, it persists.”

Budziszewski says about his students again, “Consequently, their first cheerful idea, that happiness is pleasure, suffers a dark transmutation into the equally naïve, but morbid idea, that happiness is just absence of pain. And that is what they say in my classroom. Not many of them look happy. Each year they have less sense of humor. They show all the signs of exhaustion.”

This idea that happiness is pleasure ruins us. It eliminates the biblical idea that we can find joy in suffering. We believe a lie to us that is ultimately destroys the very thing we seek. And, just like our social media self, we’re living in a narrative that is a lie to our selves.


10 thoughts on “The Lie We Believe About Human Happiness…

  1. Happiness I think is overcoming. It can be something little (running a block and a half when your previous record was running to the end of the block). There is pain, discomfort, and whatever else involved in overcoming something, but I think conquering something feeds something deep within us and adds to “happiness” as opposed to pleasure.

    Overcoming my fear of crowds, starting a workout routine and sticking with it, learning to articulate the odd, weird, scary, and sometimes very dark thoughts jumbling around in my brain… all examples of things that have brought me happiness. Yes pleasure, but something deeper too. Confidence. Not cockiness, not “swag”, but a taste of true, rock-solid confidence.


  2. Maybe so, Andrew, but I think the answer is easier than that: Happiness is knowing — knowing in your bones — that you belong to someone good, and that that good someone cares about you. If you have that, you’re a happy camper.

  3. Daniel Kahneman introduced a new twist to this recently, in a video I found thanks to Lem Usita: Kahneman emphasizes a distinction between the happiness of the experiencing self and the happiness of the remembering self, and pursuing one too far can frustrate the other. I think the paradox of hedonism can be partially explained by this effect: pursuing immediate enjoyment can starve the sense of satisfaction.

    My thoughts are that if there’s a legitimate choice between two forms of happiness, neither are happiness in the ultimate sense, but both are certainly parts of that ultimate happiness.

    As to finding joy in suffering, there’s an idea emphasized by Aristotle, John Stuart Mill, and more recently by Rabbi Noah Weinberg: the idea that pleasure has multiple levels. Deprivation on one level doesn’t imply deprivation on the others.

    I think that’s what Victor Frankl was trying to get at when he said our culture places too much emphasis on happiness, making us unhappy about being unhappy: we don’t fully recognize all the aspects of happiness, and we end up overemphasizing one or another aspect until we’re miserable.

    • Mike Friesen says:

      I think that this is where Paul Tillich is helpful. If to find joy with God (speaking as a Christian) in the depths of suffering, is to know God is the ground of being. And, as we are plummeting to the deepest depths of our being, we know we are not alone and we have found community.

  4. I’m not going to lie – there was a great deal of internal debate before I made the decision to go facebook-public with my “this is all meaningless,” feeling a total lack of humanity plea today.

    And that’s even within a (albeit virtual) community/space where wrestling with hard questions the norm.

    But I agree with Andrew. Questioning is where I find pleasure. Even when those questions lead to dark places. A friend and I have mapped out what we call the arc of spiritual revelation, where much like a roller coaster, there is an intense climb followed by a steep drop and a lesser rise. My favorite spot the fall, into that bottom valley between what I believe having been deconstructed and where the pieces start to come back together. That’s where stretching and growth happens for me.

    As terrifying as that place can be, if I don’t get to use the part of my brain that thinks through those darker questions, it feels like it starts to atrophy. And there is no pleasure in that at all.

    • Mike Friesen says:

      Maybe this is Richard Rohr’s, Three Steps Forward, Two Steps back phrase. Or, maybe a little more fleshed out is, how when we receive a revelation from God, we can get a little militant about it, regardless of how good it is.

  5. annieology says:

    I am usually right there with you, but this time not so much. Social media for me started as a “who I want to be” but once I realized I could be REAL and people still liked me it helped me to be REAL in my life. I grew up in abuse and married it, twice. Social media helped me find my voice. It gave me real friends who fed me and housed me when I left my abusive situation. It stands beside me when I’m lonely and calls me on the phone. It has made me so completely honest. The only time I feel the need to edit myself on social media is when the story involves others. So no, I’m not completely honest about why my marriage broke up, but a he said she said played out in 140 is fun for no one. and to be completely honest, I don’t even know who Bon Iver is.

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