The pathology of happiness

When an idea, an object, a substance or an emotion preoccupies consciousness to the near exclusion of anything else, we call it an obsession. And when an obsession becomes a compulsion so powerful as to assume the driving force of consciousness – even when harmful to oneself or others – we call it pathological.

Addiction to alcohol, opiates, sex, or gambling is pathological, and the disease model of “illness” guides 12-step treatment modalities like AA. Binge eating, anorexia, bulimia, detox diets, and other food-related compulsions are referred to as eating disorders, and are treated as pathologies to be treated. Emotional conditions such as depression, paranoia, and habitual lying are similarly classified and treated medically through psychotherapy and pharmaceuticals.

All these pathologies and the ways they are handled reflect the establishment of social norms particular to our western culture. In other societies where cultural beliefs differ, social norms differ as well; what we classify as pathology other cultures might view as possession, witchcraft, spiritual callings, karma or sainthood. Hence, the “tyranny of normal” establishes a social and psychological standard, the lens through which we judge ourselves and others.

And what of happiness; is the idea of happiness simply another manifestation of our cultural lens or is it, as some profess, a universal, virtually instinctual drive?

There is no question that the experience of pleasure has its biological side. Sweetness of taste, for example, appears to be a primal sensory experience of pleasure. So too, the experience of soaking in warm water brings pleasure, as does a cold glass of water on a hot day. Through scientific reductionism, it is possible to bring all forms to pleasure down to little more than its chemical basis in the human brain and body.

My query, however, has more to do with happiness in the psychological sense, for we are repeatedly told that happiness is what we should pursue and how we should feel. Happiness, conventionally, has been established as the norm against which all other emotions are to be judged. Billions of dollars of advertising are spent each year to reinforce our happiness habit; we’re addicted to the ideal of happiness and the money associated with it makes the world go ’round. It feels quite pathological.

While I’m sure it is a simplification on his part, even the Dalai Lama has said that “all beings seek happiness,” this despite the Buddha’s teachings that all beings suffer. Perhaps the Dalai Lama means that all beings prefer not to suffer, but compulsively pursuing happiness also brings suffering; this is at the center of the Buddha’s teaching of the Truth of Suffering.

In the animated movie “Inside Out,” primal emotions are personified into human-like characters: Joy, Anger, Disgust, Fear and Sadness. Together they comprise personality. Joy holds center stage, but by the end of the film Sadness is revealed as the glue that holds personality together, not Joy.

When, then, does the pursuit of happiness become pathological, and is it really happiness we seek or contentment? Happiness has an intoxicating, manic quality about it, an elevation of mood combined with a sense of stimulation. Accordingly, the ads for fast food and alcohol are entertaining and dripping with visual flavor, as are most commercials. The not subtle message is that happiness comes through the accumulation of things, experiences and “friends” on Facebook. Our pursuit of happiness has become the pursuit of consumption.

Contentment differs; it denotes satisfaction and relaxation. It’s primary emotional quality is not.  intoxicated, manic nor elevated, but a comfortable sense of “enough.” Contentment, it would seem, is the truest and healthiest form of happiness. Pass it on.

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