Sick and Tired of the Happiness Craze
These days, I am really sick and tired of the endless stream of publications and advice on scientifically proven simple ways to achieve instant happiness. I am not questioning the importance of happiness in our lives, nor am I questioning the validity of the scientific findings on happiness—but I am convinced that the present happiness crazy is misguided.
Definitely, most people in their right minds want to be happy, but there is much more to life than happiness, and it is counterproductive to directly pursue happiness as one’s most important end value. Many years ago, in the article “Perils and Promises in the Pursuit of Happiness” (Wong, 2007), I asked these questions:
Life without happiness is like living on a parched land without rain. But what does it mean to be happy in a consumer society? Why do we still feel empty, when we live in abundance? Why is depression on the increase, when we are awash with information on how to be happy? How can we find lasting, heartfelt happiness that can quench our thirsty souls? Why does happiness remain fleeting and elusive in spite of our concerted efforts to search for this new Holy Grail?
These rhetorical questions highlight the illusionary nature of pursuing the fleeting feelings of happiness. Martin Seligman (2011) has revised his thinking on subjective happiness and promoted the PERMA theory of wellness. PERMA refers to positive affect, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement. The last four components are all related to some objective criteria.
In addition to Seligman’s PERMA, I will include some additional objective conditions, such as financial status, physical health, and national conditions. When people are in dire poverty or suffering from physical pains, their happiness is diminished. Similarly, when a nation is at war or controlled by a brutal dictator, everyone’s personal well-being is adversely affected.
Therefore, happiness as a general sense of wellness is more than subjective well-being; it is dependent on many objective conditions. I rate myself a seven on happiness, not only because of the absence of most of the objective conditions of well-being, but also because of the presence of my melancholic temperament.
As a teenager, I used to love to read von Goethe’s (1774/2005) The Sorrow of Young Werther, 19th-century British romantic poems, and the sad sentiments of Tang and Sung poetry. Honestly, happiness has never appealed to me, neither as a young man nor as an adult.
Yes, I value much more the feelings of sorrow and melancholy because of my temperament, circumstances, and the human condition around the globe. Perhaps, I am the only positive psychologist who endorses Wilson’s (2008) Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy. To me, it is difficult to enjoy unadulterated happiness even on a cruise, if you can envision people all around the ship are drowning in a sea of suffering. I am glad that the Bible says, “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matthew 5:4).
I Have Been a Rainbow Chaser
Perhaps, my lifelong pursuit has been more unrealistic than chasing after happiness. A rainbow is always beautiful from afar—inviting and tantalizing, but beyond reach. Yet, I have been a rainbow chaser since childhood, always striving towards a tantalizing ideal. But I have no regrets. It is in the striving that I stretch myself and become fully alive.
Still, occasionally, when the struggle is very intense, I may waver and struggle with the dilemma of continuing the fight or retreating.
I remember that when I was a teenager, I even entertained the idea of becoming a hermit, living a contemplative life and eating from the land and sea. In fact, I even actively enquired about getting a piece of land on Lantau Island.
Even now, occasionally, I am tempted by the idea of giving up the futile struggle and living a retired life like all my colleagues.
But, I am still fighting, striving, dreaming, and reaching out to the beautiful rainbow. I still believe that my struggle is for something worthwhile and significant, lest I would be overcome by a sense of futility and despair.
Maybe I can’t help it, because I am a human being. Craig Barnes (2009) once wrote: “What distinguished humanity in creation is not moral superiority but the mark of a need—a craving to have meaning that is eternal and thus able to sustain us through the shifting tides of our years” (p. 65).
By accepting the reality of our needs, failures, and pains, we are freed from our defenses to receive the grace that will meet those needs. I am learning afresh each day how to live with my fears and hopes, frustrations and gratitude, natural impulses and spiritual yearnings.
It is comforting to know that I am not alone in this struggle. There are hundreds of thousands of people around the world, who out of love and compassion devote their lives to a noble cause in spite of pain, stress, fatigue, and danger. They have neither recognition nor reward, but they have the blessings of suffering for others.
It is in Darkness that One Finds Light
Is it possible to enjoy life, even when it hurts and wounds? Is it possible to survive and flourish in a harsh and competitive world by making the pursuit of meaning and virtue the supreme mission in life? Is it possible to live out the joy, love, and goodness of God in the midst of misery, hate, and evil?
Carrying the burden of failures, facing insurmountable mountains, wearing the scars and wounds of life, and going through long dark nights of the soul: Could such a person lead a fulfilling and productive life and make a difference in the world?
My life story is about finding an answer to these persistent questions. I have studied religions, philosophies, and numerous life stories of great men and women, and I have devoted most of my adult life doing psychological research. I have considered every option ever discovered by human beings.
But all my strivings seem like grasping for the wind, and everything is vanity under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:3-4). If I assess my own life with the world as the frame of reference, then I am dissatisfied with all the disruptions and obstacles. But if my self-appraisal is through the prism of meaning, then I am satisfied that my life has been very meaningful even in situations of pain and failure.
The simple word of meaning holds the key to unlock the mysteries and miracles of life. Most of us want to be happy and successful. The irresistible appeal of positive psychology lies in its attempt to meet these needs through scientific research. But science cannot change the fact that suffering is an inevitable part of life; nor can it satisfy the never-ending greed and cravings.
I am glad that I have finally discovered the principle of self-transcendence—the supreme mission in life is to serve God and others, whatever the personal cost. This is the essence of what I call the second wave positive psychology—seeing the light in darkness.
According to this new perspective, true happiness and fulfillment comes through the backdoor, when one is guided by the highest motivation of self-transcendence—of devoting one’s life to serving others, no matter the difficulties.
Consider all the great reformers—Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Sun Yat-sen, Nelson Mandela—those who have risked their own lives for a higher purpose and the greater good. These giants are my role models. I will never achieve their greatness, but I am satisfied to follow their steps.
Those who are serious about valuing life and loving others will sow seeds of virtue, compassion, and hope that eventually will yield good fruits in the fullness of time. I believe in Karma. It is the hardest road to travel on, but it is also the most blessed path.
The Story within a Story
Every person’s life is a story worthy of a book. There are three levels to anyone’s story: psychological, cultural, and spiritual.
My story is one of an idealist who struggles to pursue an impossible dream against incredible odds in a hostile world. It is a story of the defiant human spirit in search of meaning and fulfillment in the face of powerful opposition.
At the cultural and national level, my life story is also part of the larger drama of the Chinese Diaspora—the fears and hopes of overseas Chinese people struggling to survive and take root in a foreign land amid discrimination and cultural obstacles.
However, the most important aspect of my life is about the Big Story of God invading human history and breaking into my broken life. What makes my life story worth telling is God’s grace in my life. He rescued me from the nadir of despair, placed me on a higher ground, and called me to serve those who suffer.
Life is a constant battle, especially for all those who aspire to live on a higher plane and for a higher purpose. Yes, there is always the human struggle to cope with the stresses of life and satisfy the never-ending yearnings for happiness and success. However, the larger and deeper conflicts take place in the spiritual realm.
Walking by faith means learning to walk in total darkness, not knowing what the next step will bring, yet willing to following His leading, whatever the cost. Living by grace means learning to experience God’s sufficiency and love even at times of total helplessness and hopelessness.
It took me a lifetime to learn these two basic spiritual principles; unfortunately, the most valuable lessons can only be learned in terrifying adversities. The most painful and poignant moments in my life were also the most sacred moments when God met with me in my brokenness and weaknesses.
Time and time again, I have gone through long periods of darkness and doubts, but God has never failed to sustain me and see me through the crisis. Towards the end of a long and hard journey, I can honestly say that a life of faith and obedience to God is worth all the struggles and sufferings.
I can “count it all joy” because I am part of His glorious story. That is enough for me. I hope that after reading my life story, my readers will be able to answer the same questions: What is your life story? What makes it worth telling? What is the story you live by?
- Barnes, M. C. (2009). Yearning: Living between how it is and how it ought to be. Westmont, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York, NY: Free Press.
- von Goethe, J. W. (2005). The sorrows of young Werther (Trans, B. Pike). New York, NY: Modern Library. Original published 1774.
- Wilson, E. G. (2008). Against happiness: In praise of melancholy. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
- Wong, P. T. P. (2007). Perils and promises in the pursuit of happiness [Review of the book In search of happiness: Understanding an endangered state of mind]. PsycCRITIQUES, 52(49). doi:10.1037/a0010040