BY: TIM O’NEAL
The obsession with achieving happiness in the United States is actually making us miserable. This is according to a recent article at vox.com. The author, Ruth Whippman, makes a compelling argument. She cites studies showing that, “the higher people rate happiness as a distinct personal ambition, the less happy they were in their lives generally and the more likely they were to experience symptoms of dissatisfaction and even depression.”
The author says, “Happiness [in the United States] has its own vocabulary: mindfulness…the hugely popular zeitgeist theory that in order to be happy we must live fully in the present moment…”
Whippman gives a handful of examples of the false promises of some mindfulness trainings. She says, “According to the practice’s thought leaders, in order to achieve maximum happiness, the mindful dishwasher must refuse to succumb to domestic autopilot and instead fully mentally engage with every piece of congealed scrambled egg and clump of oatmeal in the sausepan.”
She is correct that a one-week mindfulness retreat is not the key to happiness, but she misunderstands the purpose of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness.
The author conflates the modern self-help industry with practices that have been around for thousands of years. It is true that some may try to monetize the positive outcomes of these powerful practices, but that does not mean that the practices themselves fail to accomplish their purpose.
Yoga and mindfulness practices are not recent strategies to help us cope with our contemporary, fast-paced lives, as the author seems to suggest. Mindfulness is a fundamental part of traditional Tibetan Buddhism, meant to help the practitioner achieve liberation.
Happiness is a temporary emotional state. It may come to us one moment only to be replaced by any number of other emotions the next instant. These deep, lifelong spiritual practices teach not to grasp for maintaining happiness as a permanent state, but to acknowledge and accept its impermanence. They are tools to help transcend the yearning for happiness, not as a way to hold onto it. Our true self is more than the sum of our fleeting emotions.
Whippman is right that a single-minded effort to attain permanent happiness can lead nowhere except to a feeling of failure, but that’s not the point of a mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is not making us unhappy. The unreasonable expectation that we can always be happy just might be.