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  • Writer's pictureDr. Jon

Happiness Is Not Enough

Updated: Mar 16, 2023



“Why would anyone else have the answers to your life but you?”

“Sure I’m selfish. This is my happiness we’re talking about; I have every right to be.”

“Don’t I deserve to be happy?”

“Cheer up man! We’re only here for 80 years so you’ve got to enjoy yourself.”


Sometimes I marvel at the bizarre statements I hear that casually get passed off as legitimate beliefs. I’ve worked in the mental health field for 16 years. I’ve heard lots of people say lots of crazy things.[1] Usually these beliefs can be deconstructed (with lots of time and care) and healthy beliefs can be built in their place.


Usually.


But nothing is so treatment-resistant as faulty beliefs about one’s own happiness. It’s the final fig leaf;[2] the last bastion of what many people hold sacred. I am a welcome guest in many areas of their life, and so long as I do my part, they will accept my input on various aspects of their life I think need attention. But when it comes to the sacred Hindu cow of personal happiness, I had better tread lightly.


This pattern is reproducible with a high degree of accuracy. In our culture, most people idealize happiness. It’s the end goal of nearly everything:


“I don’t want to play baseball, dad. It’s not fun anymore.” “I think I’m going to quit my job, I’m just not passionate about it anymore.” “Yeah, we’ve decided to get a divorce. It’s for the best – neither one of us is happy.”


Sound familiar? It should. We’ve been preoccupied with the pursuit of happiness for a long time. History is filled with people who think happiness is the highest good in life.[3] There’s a sizable percentage of philosophy dedicated to studying this phenomenon.[4]


The Folly of Errol Flynn


Flynn was an Australian-born American actor. By all accounts Flynn had it all: intelligence, good looks, a charming accent, wealth from birth, and a charismatic personality. Born to wealthy parents in 1909, his was a life of excitement and intrigue. Prior to becoming a movie star, he was a businessman and adventurer in Papua New Guinea.[5] After some time in London, he traveled Hollywood, where his charming good looks (and his parent’s money) landed him a job as an actor. He soon achieved widespread fame and influence.


Flynn was larger than life.


No one was bigger than Errol Flynn in the 1930’s and 40’s. He wore the best clothes, bought the nicest cars and lived in the largest mansions. He was a prolific womanizer, married three times, and had a shocking number of affairs[6] with some of the most beautiful and famous women of his day. He attended only the most exclusive parties and was known for owning several expensive yachts. He wanted for nothing. His was a wonderfully decadent life. Quite literally, Flynn had it all and did it all.


But the future is not promised to anyone. Flynn’s carefree, you-only-live-once, attitude toward life carried an expensive price tag. He used cocaine and heroin for years. He abused alcohol for decades. Toward the end of his life he was leasing his yachts to businessmen to make the payments. His money had run out and so had his time. At the ripe old age of 50 on a trip to Vancouver with his latest girlfriend, Beverly Aadland at his side, he died. The coroner later listed the cause of death to be a heart attack – his fourth – and cirrhosis of the liver.[7]


Two Truths About Happiness


Flynn isn’t alone. How many rock stars, movie stars, and millionaires have had Chernobyl-like meltdowns in their life? How many do you think we could collectively name in the next 10 minutes? Several, right?


Endless money, infinite fame, and tons of careless sex never seems to work out. And even though most people think these things will make them happy, the tiny percentage of the population that achieves this status is rarely happy. Why? Because of this timeless truth:


Happiness is a byproduct of pursuing meaning.


You don't pursue happiness and find meaning. When you view happiness as the solution for all of life’s problems you over-estimate its worth and status in your life. When we believe our own happiness is the highest form of some fully self-actualized, Zen master, state of nirvana we lose sight of the deeper, more meaningful aspects of life – humility, respect, generosity, integrity, and the greatest of these: love.


If happiness is your greatest goal in life, why try to accomplish any of the other meaningful aspects of life? Practicing humility can be difficult. Being helpful can be tiresome. We reason to ourselves, “Those things are hard and they don’t make me happy, so I’ll leave all that integrity and generosity nonsense to some other naïve sap.”[8] This leads me to our second truth about happiness:


Happiness, as the end goal sought in life is incredibly selfish.[9]


The paradox is this: they want to be happy, but they’re so self-absorbed with finding happiness they miss all the opportunities they have to be happy. That’s why I marvel at the bizarre things I hear people say regarding the pursuit of happiness. These missed opportunities to be happy fuel their endless, greedy appetite for personal pleasure and happiness. These people just don’t get it:


The road to daily happiness is not hard to find. It’s what we do for others that brings us peace of mind.[10]





__________


[1] Funny story about this: Years ago while working at the psychiatric hospital one of my 9-yr old clients had a complete meltdown over being asked to return to his seat. I began to discuss the matter with him when he exploded, screaming, “SHUT YOUR MOUTH! SH–, SH–, SHUT YOUR FACE! ALL YOU DO IS TALK AND TALK, AND I HATE YOUR STUPID VOICE! ALL I WANT YOU TO DO IS SHUT YOUR MOUTH! YOU CAN’T TELL ME WHAT TO DO! WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? THE QUEEN OF ENGLAND?” Thank you for the fond memories psychiatric hospital. Fun times. [2] The metaphorical similarity between Adam and Eve sewing fig leaves together in a feeble attempt to cover the effects of their embarrassing behavior and some client’s refusal to abandon embarrassingly irrational beliefs can hardly be ignored. [3] This goes back all the way to the Greek philosopher Epicurus. Also see: poet Oscar Wilde, The Rat Pack, Woody Allen, Hugh Hefner, Charlie Sheen, and the list goes on. [4] This belief is called, “hedonism.” Hedonism is a school of thought that teaches personal pleasure and sensual self-indulgence are the most important goals in life, and that a meaningful life is obtained by minimizing pain and maximizing personal pleasure and happiness. [5] Although he wasn’t very successful. He tried his hand at running a gold mine and then a tobacco farm, both of which were dismal failures. [6] By his own account he estimated he’d slept with over 10,000 women. Flynn’s last book, written in 1945, has yet to be published because the publisher asked him to “tone down” some of the chapters and Flynn refused. The book is entitled: “My Wicked, Wicked Ways.” [7] The coroner also said he had the body of an 85-yr old man. [8] In response to this idea I would agree with Bryant McGill and say that the endless thirst for possessions and pleasure has ravaged the soul of humanity like a great cancer. [9] Next time you have a problem with someone say this and see what happens – “I’m sorry for being a jerk. I was only thinking of myself.” If you can do it fast enough, take a picture of the shocked look on their face and keep it as a reminder of what the response to humble personal responsibility looks like. [10] Anyone know who originally wrote/said this? I looked and looked, but to no avail.

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