The unhappy nonconformist

I am thinking of full happiness. Bliss. A state of complete satisfaction and fulfilment. Fulfilment of all aims that were, are and can be. The feeling of arrival, of total accomplishment, the end of the road. Necessarily, the end of new aims that might make us happy. Full happiness, nothing beyond.

But that’s not on the menu for us humans. Our reward centre is constructed in a way that it always demands more. Humans can never be happy for long, we always need a new dose of happiness. This represents a permanent state of lack of (full) achievement that is tolerable only because we gain a sense of purpose: to achieve the new goal that will, supposedly, make us happy again. We can never reach the end of the rainbow. We can never be fully happy, because as soon as we reach an aim, this accomplishment no longer fulfils us and we need a new challenge. The end of the rainbow is always moved further. We never get there. We always need more.

This insatiability is inherent to us, positively selected during evolution. It is a trait that makes us fitter, better at adapting than complacency. This is why happiness is ephemeral for us. It’s the way we are made. It is one of our charms.

Evolution, the survival of the fittest, has taken from us the capacity to remain happy. We could say that, in a way, being permanently happy is ‘unnatural’. By attempting at retaining happiness, by trying to make it permanent, we are working against our own nature. Our insatiable reward centre defines our unavoidable fate: to see happiness slip relentlessly through our fingers. Pursuing happiness is therefore pointless unless we accept that it starts to fade as soon as it comes to us.

It is not our fault. We are not doing anything wrong. It is the way we are wired, like our instinct to protect our children, to mate, to find shelter from a storm. We cannot help it. And it should not be a source of suffering or anxiety.

And yet, we pursue happiness like no other species. We make it the centre of our lives. Our purpose. We are hooked on this feeling of sheer elation that compares to no other. Like Will Smith at the end of The Pursuit of Happiness: he’s made it. His happiness is so intense that he needs to get out of the building. He has reached the end of the rainbow after such a quest. A true hero. But after a few months, the end of the rainbow will have been moved and the happiness will have disappeared, substituted by a new void to be filled.

To keep the wheel running, we look for new aims that will provide us with our next dose of happiness. New aims necessarily imply a change from whatever state we were in, a new ‘us’. We cannot pursue happiness without changing. Actually, permanent change is the only way to be in a permanent pursuit of happiness. No change means being happy once and experiencing the ‘who moved my cheese’ feeling from then on. The reward centre will demand more. Our incapacity to be happy, the permanent lack of satisfaction, is what pushes humans to change, to evolve. This is what makes us more adaptable, fitter.

This death is no external enemy, it is his own inner longing for the stillness and profound peace of all-knowing non-existence, for all-seeing sleep in the ocean of coming-to-be and passing away. Even in his highest strivings for harmony and balance, for the profundities of philosophy and the raptures of the artist, he seeks death, immobility, satiety, rest.

Carl Jung, Symbols of Transformation

There is only one way humans reach a point where they no longer have any needs or aims. Death is void of aims, of means, of frustration, of satisfaction, of change. No fulfilment of human aims, but their disappearance. As humans, would it be bearable not to pursue a dream, an aim? Having a purpose has become the purpose of our lives. Do we need a purpose? What would happen if we had no purpose, if we just existed? No change. Freedom. Acceptance, no change. And if no change, no time. Only ‘now’. Stillness. Is this death? Or is it life? Balance? Peace?

I thought we might end this evening with a discussion of the soul. All of the greatest religions speak of the soul’s endurance before the end of life. So what then does it mean to die?

Eissenheim, The Illusionist

Happiness is an ephemeral drug that keeps us moving, an illusion. I do not seek happiness now. I seek peace, preferentially alive. I do not want to be happy. I just want to be.