People are most unhappy when they contemplate their happiness. What? Why? As adaptive beings it is probably most important that the most efficient means are cultivated and adopted in the act of living. Indeed, once this becomes part of the regular flow of life and one settles into a habituated state of living, one is unreflectingly “happy”, you might say. One day seems to kind of flow into the next without too much struggle. You’re likely floating in a state of contentment, have accepted and feel comfortable with your lot. If asked, “are you happy?”, your knee-jerk response would likely be, “yes”.
But this may be just the provocation to ignite a certain sense of dread, this tug-like feeling at your chest where you feel somehow unfulfilled, unhappy, disconnected, disenchanted. You may have a good life – a good job, a steady and sufficient income, a network of friends and a companion, and be healthy. Does this mean that what one acquires in life, who accompanies us on our journey, and how one conducts oneself is incidental, that it neither adds nor subtracts from the value of one’s life? I would not wish to make such a claim. The suggestion, however, that one’s life is more valuable for what one has acquired, for the people that inhabit one’s life or how one has conducted herself in life, leaves me reluctant to concede. You might say that the acquisition of material things is incidental but that how one conducts oneself in life isn’t. Your point might be that material wealth does not by itself make one happy, or that however much the less affluent might envy the ease such a life can “buy”, it is not an admirable life, and that if one had to choose between a life of riches and a life of integrity, you’d opt for the latter. And yet, people of great moral integrity, Tolstoy’s’ The Death of Ivan Ilych comes to mind, don’t always or necessarily live happy lives. Ivan is described as having an upstanding life of professional and material success, and of good martial and familial repute. If there were a book of codifying acceptable standards of conduct you can be sure that he’d have read it umpteen times. With the onslaught of his demise Ivan begins to see himself as a man who inhabits a world quite foreign, even hostile, to anything that doesn’t quite fit with the acceptable niceties of bourgeois life. Being ill, terminally ill, is indeed a terrible inconvenience; quite distasteful, in fact, that puts everyone ill at ease. He is shunned; forced out as one removed from all formal invitations before his actual death. Yet dead he is, both for those that remain and to himself who now, contemplative, self-reflective, experiences the disconnectedness, discontentment; the void that was once his life.
The point is that even when one lives by the rules, does all the right things, even pays tribute to all those socially plied standards of good living, when these are unthinkingly adopted the only one who will sing your praises are the blind and the deaf who neither really see nor hear you. And yet paradoxically it is only with this first step that any real chance at human happiness is possible. It is only once you wrestle yourself from the shackles of a life lived vicariously through the will of others that you are sensitized to the experience of your own unhappiness. Your unhappiness comes not from the realization that what and how you have come to live is objectionable by some impersonal and impartial standards. It matters not to happiness whether your life has been one of sacrifice, the accumulation of great wealth, innovative discoveries, motherly devotion or artistic endeavours. What matters to happiness, to your happiness, is that it is experienced as something that is meaningful.