KAMPALA – You’re lying in bed at night, and you can’t sleep. You were meant to work or study or go places today, but you didn’t. Maybe you drank too much, or smoked too much. You were mean to your kid when you didn’t mean to. You had a food craving at ate way too much. You were supposed to go to the gym, but instead you hung out at home watching Netflix or the new season of Game of Thrones.
And you think: ‘tomorrow…’
Tomorrow, things are going to change. Tomorrow I will work, study, go out. I will stop drinking, and smoking, and eat healthier. Tomorrow, I will be nice and pleasant and charming. I will get up earlier tomorrow so I can take an extra long shower and maybe do some yoga or some meditation. I will go for a jog, and then fill in that application.
You won’t. Don’t fret about it though, the majority of us won’t either. But what if I told you that our nightly empty promises are typical of this modern, individualised age?
We are pressed for time, and alway in a hurry. I didn’t realise how busy and hurried I usually am until I came to Africa (as generalizing as that sounds). There’s a reason we are, though. We live in cultures that put an emphasis on achievement. Monetary achievement, social achievement, – it is of paramount importance we achieve. And we feel bad if we don’t, if we waste a day we could have been achieving. Which is exactly the reason why we do fret about it, at night.
We have also moved on from mere achievement. In our individualised cultures, it is not just achievement compared to someone else’s: it is relative to your absolute best. But not just job-wise, money-wise, or social-status-wise, our happiness is an achievement, too.
Everyone wants to be happy. In fact, it’s hard-wired in our brain. We have a sense of belonging that is fundamental to our well-being. Having people around makes us happy, so our brain developed in such a way it is more sensitive to rejection. Sometimes, when you’re doing your thing, suddenly, out of nowhere, a memory cue will be activated and you will remember an exceedingly embarassing or awkward event in your life. You can vididly remember how shameful it was. Similarly, you can remember in detail that time you got rejected, or hurt. Maybe it was someone you loved, or the children on the playground when you were a kid, or maybe you once said something really stupid that made everyone laugh at you, and every couple of months or so, your brain just goes there. It’s been literally years since it actually happened, and you don’t know why or how your brain does that. Our minds pick up on cues of social ostracism much faster than they do any other cues. We spend an extraordinary amount of time worrying about rejection, too, especially when we’re younger.
We do that precisely because we want to be happy. And why wouldn’t you? Surely, everyone deserves to be happy? Scientifically speaking, happy people live longer, are more succesful in their jobs, have better marriages.. or, it might just be the other way ’round. Happiness, however, is a tricky concept. It’s hard to define, really.
In our individualised cultures, happiness has become individualised, too. Your happiness is your responsibility, our modern wisdom teaches us. No one else is responsible for it. For the sake of consistency, this also means that your unhappiness is a product of your own as well, or at least it means you failed to live up to your own responsibilities. No wonder so may people are so worried about their happiness, since the responsibility of it falls solely on themselves.
And so we are encouraged to be on a crazed pursuit for happiness. A pursuit that we have to finance, for happiness has long been commercialised and neatly packaged. Today’s happines is also largely illusionary. It is based on archetypes of happiness, created for consumerist purposes, that are unrealistic and unattainable. Popular words like “self-discovery” and “self-acceptance” got so many people worried about whether they truly know themselves, and in case they do, how they subsequently feel about that.
We have also become more versatile in this pursuit. In his book on American privilige, author Shamus Khan argued that the modern, “new” elite is not actually elitist: they are all-round, their habitus extends to all corners of the world, they embrace all cultures, and are comfortable everywhere. Our pursuit of happiness exemplifies that: we borrow happiness quotes and dogmas from Eastern religions and philosophies. We modernized some older traditions of goneby ages, and effortlessly we move across borders of what used to be different worlds.
All these borrowed lessons and wisdoms we simplified, stripped bare of cultural meaning, and neatly summarised in a genre of books, speeches, happiness-gurus, TED talks, and inspirational quotes about happines whose numbers are getting ridiculous once you start paying attention to the happiness industry. Today, I read on my Facebook feed a small article commenting on a speech given by actor Jim Carrey for some graduation ceremony. One minute of this speech will change your life, its headline promised. Modern happiness is about self-esteem building exercises, self-acceptance, self-love, inspirational quotes and people, decluttering, andsoforth. It’s about changing your life in order to be happy.
So, we (or, at least most of the readers of this blog, I imagine) live in individualistic, consumerist societies. We also live times of transformation and constant change. We are promised said change in our pursuit of happiness. In fact, our pursuit requires us to change.
Perhaps it is typical of our cultures that so many people are unhappy. I will not lament that previously, this was not the case. There have been no better times than now, I think. Which maybe makes the fact that so many are still unhappy, even more depressing. And so many are unhappy. Because, if you’d be happy you wouldn’t bother with the happiness craze. There’d be no pursuit. Ironically, this is also a common advice from the people who are part of the pursuit of happiness mania. Do not chase happiness! After all, stuff like meditation and self-acceptance and self-love and forgiving yourself and learning how to live with your flaws sounds sensible. Why then, are so many people still in pursuit of this illusive happiness?
I have written previously about how consumerism has us identifying with ideology through symbolic and empty gestures. A large part of someone’s Facebook feed is exactly that. It’s a small, artificially created and perfected sample of their identity. Those who post inspirational quotes, videos, and speeches obviously care a great deal about being happy. To me, that automatically implies they’re not actually happy. If you’d be happy, you wouldn’t bother with that crap. Anyways, a lot of the things we do in our pursuit of happiness are exactly that: symbolic and empty.
So let’s get real. The chances of you discovering yourself, learning self-acceptance, having a transcendental experience, teaching yourself self-love, and ultimately, being happy, by cluttering your walls (real or virtual) with inspirational quotes are slim to none.
The notion that you will actually change yourself in order to be happy by meditating, doing yoga, or taking classes, or “talking to people” (I love that one) is slightly ridiculous. Neither change or happiness is that easy. We are a complicated species (even although some of the guru’s tell you that it actually IS that easy because overthinking makes you unhappy. Ha!). The pursuit of happiness requires transformation in one way or another (even when it explictly says it does not), but unfortunately, with the tools in hand, we cannot just reconstruct ourselves. Not in the way we’d often like to. And not in the pace we’d like to. And most of us like to because we were somehow told or informed that we have to. We internalised it. We want to change. To become better at life.
Which in itself is an admirable sentiment, were it not for the fact that we also linked those ambitions to our self-image and sense of self-worth. We truly are on a crazed pursuit for happiness. And we will only be happy when we are fulfilled in every way: romantically, intellectually, physically, emotionally … and most of us do that by buying into the happiness ideology.
Being an expat makes you notice this attempted reconstruction of the self in order to be happy, and those who have been abroad for a longer time (or moved to another part of their own country) probably have noticed (or experienced) this as well: when no one knows you, and you don’t know anyone either, you get a change at reinvention.
Most of us have friends and family back home that know us quite well, -including our flaws. But being abroad gets you into conversations with (sometimes just seemingly) interesting people to whom you casually mention that people “usually think I am [insert]”, after which your conversation partner will go: “noooo! You’re not [insert]! Not at all, in fact, I think you are rather [second insert] instead”. And after a while, most people will start believing the [second insert] about themselves, based on the evaluation of someone they don’t really know, who based said evaluation on his perception of a *reinvented* you, the one without all the embarassing stories, the insecurities, and the personality flaws that only show themselves after some time.
After all, being abroad is a perfect way of finding out who you are without all the baggage back home. Thing is, that baggage defines who you are, and no matter how much you try to change and transform, your history is an inevitable part of you. Having said that, I do believe people can change; just not in the ways we have been told to want to.
Thing is, the moment I’d offer an alternative to the pursuit, I’d join the long list of happiness-gurus, and I have no intention of doing so. Plus, I haven’t figured out happiness myself anyways. What I do know is that the tools most people use, the behaviours they engage in, the expressions they use, are of little to no help. They fool people in thinking they are pursuing happiness while few will actually arrive at their destination.
It is sometimes tiring to see people so thoroughly convinced in their pursuit, especially because the inevitable truth shimmers through and is eliminated through external confirmation. Hence, people who want to be happy or want to tell themselves they are, those on the hot pursuit and the high road to happiness, usually take a lot of effort expressing their “happiness” in carefully designed posts, statements, discussions, quotes, you-name-it. They will talk about their self-discovery and their changed personality and acquired wisdoms until they bore you out of your mind, and then they’ll talk some more.
It does make me sad, on some level, that such a meaningful and vital purpose in our lives is chased by so many people with increasingly fewer getting there.
I could say that happiness is not a journey, but that it’s a state of being or something along those lines, but that’d be just using a slightly different terminology in service to the same pursuit. Just saying, in case you were thinking that.