The Miserable Pursuit of Happiness
April 8, 2018 11:16 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for expressions or representations, in any form, of the notion that a person's pursuit of the feeling of happiness can lead them far afield, instead bringing them very much towards the opposite feeling or way of being.

"All the joy the world contains has come from wishing happiness for others. All the misery the world contains has come from wishing pleasure for oneself."
- Shantideva, The Way of the Bohdisattva

Googling on this topic has certainly uncovered many articles but I expect MeFites may bring some quality curation to the pursuit. Fiction or non-fiction. Books, movies, songs, poems, essays -- or your own thoughts, opinions, and observations, AskMeFite. Whatever.
posted by armoir from antproof case to Human Relations (16 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

The fifth chapter of John Stuart Mill's Autobiography is devoted to working through this problem in his own life. His argument is partly inspired by the fourth chapter of Thomas Carlyle's Past and Present.
posted by thomas j wise at 11:39 AM on April 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

You might enjoy The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking by Metafilter's own Oliver Burkeman.
posted by peacheater at 11:53 AM on April 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

This is happening in real time in my personal life at the moment. I'm currently a copywriter in the beauty industry, and my life revolves around influencer marketing and how convincingly I can sound goofy enough for SEO to make people buy stuff.

But, for the past year, I have also been doing grief facilitation counseling for pre-teens as a volunteer.

In May, I am returning to college to get my Social Work degree and do grief counseling full-time.

How this may apply to your Askme:

Doing non-self based work ironically requires me to do THE MOST work on myself just to sit in the room with the grieving children. You have to forget what YOU WANT to happen to them - to fix them, change them, take your advice as an adult authority figure.

But this in turn frees my spirit to truly engage with these kids and see them as they ACTUALLY are apart from my preconceived reactions and expectations. And that's when they open up the most about how hard a time they're having saying goodbye to their loved ones.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 11:55 AM on April 8, 2018 [14 favorites]

The first one that popped in my head is The Wizard of Oz.
posted by NoraCharles at 12:05 PM on April 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

June Gruber has done research on what she calls "the dark side of happiness". Summary in this TEDx talk from 2012 -- basically, degree, context, duration, and type of positive emotion can affect whether the end result is a negative emotion. Her website includes links to her research and other resources like a YouTube course on human emotion she created that also covers the pursuit of happiness.

The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, which runs a popular online course called The Science of Happiness, is also a good resource for this stuff (it's where I originally came across an article by June Gruber). This article from their online magazine cites a couple of studies, and the PubMed sidebar has links to some more in the same area of happiness studies.
posted by camyram at 12:25 PM on April 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Dr Seuss' I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew is a classic example.
posted by Too-Ticky at 12:37 PM on April 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

A job for Schopenhauer!

“All happiness is of a negative rather than positive nature, and for this reason cannot give lasting satisfaction and gratification, but rather only ever a release from a pain or lack, which must be followed either by a new pain or by languor, empty yearning and boredom.”
posted by thelonius at 1:24 PM on April 8, 2018 [5 favorites]

Madame Bovary!
posted by kingdead at 2:38 PM on April 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Edith Wharton had a character say "There are lots of ways of being miserable, but there's only own way of being comfortable, and that is to stop running around after happiness"
I found this quote in The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Postive Thinking, which I just bought after seeing the recommendation from peacheater above.
posted by metahawk at 3:09 PM on April 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

Ecclesiastes 2 (The Futility of Self-Indulgence)

Short commentary here
posted by tackypink at 4:33 PM on April 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is one of the main points of Viktor Frankl's book: "Man's Search for Meaning."
posted by hworth at 5:00 PM on April 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

In a roundabout way, the premise for Pixar's Inside Out deals with this. Joy's dogged obsession with happiness causes way more stress, trouble and problems than just embracing the Sadness would have.
posted by Dimes at 6:37 AM on April 9, 2018

You may find "hedonic treadmill" useful as a search/research term. "According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness."

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy is a pretty fascinating introduction to the practice and philosophy Stoicism; it closely examines the hedonic treadmill and ways to avoid being trapped in it.
posted by ourobouros at 7:32 AM on April 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

Psychologist and Buddhist meditation teacher Tara Brach calls this “false refuge,” and opposes it to True Refuge, or forms of happiness that are sustainable and healthy.
Cultural critic and philosopher Lauren Berlant talks about Cruel Optimism as being the pursuit of something that, by pursuing, one becomes further away from—this includes happiness, certain forms of health, etc.
posted by Edna Million at 2:17 PM on April 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

one more, also; The Buddhist canon is FILLED with the way to understand this exact situation. As said above in different modes, the tricksy part of being happy is that you have to know what happy is when literally everything in life changes on a dime. Happiness = control for most folks, usually a control over pain, emotional, physical, whatever.

The Buddhists believe, instead, that happiness= complete loss of control, even down to labelling anything an emotion, thought, etc. The ultimate in happiness is in being grounded in uncertainty.

There's a funny joke among meditators that I love that says this better, though:

"Don't just DO something, sit there!" :)
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 10:52 AM on April 13, 2018

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