Posts Tagged ‘existential phenomenology’

Perhaps you recall the lyrics of the Bobbie McFarrin tune with the title of this post. It sums up a pervasive philosophy that has wormed its way into the thinking of many. In this weekend’s Financial Times, philosopher Julian Baggini writes an excellent critique of the positive psychology movement entitled “Where happiness lies,” which I find myself agreeing with entirely.

The gist of the article is that it has become fashionable to dismiss negative emotions outright. People suffering from depression often feel guilty when others say such hurtful and ignorant things as ” just get over it,” “think your way out of it,” and ” just decide not to be miserable.” The uninformed even attribute laziness and selfishness to them. Actually, if there is any “laziness,” it is on the part of the  critics of the depressed who simply cannot bring themselves to entertain what it is like to suffer with this condition, or to think about the darker and threatening aspects of life.

We are increasingly becoming a culture obsessed with happiness. Even those with cancer are told to invest in a happiness campaign and to get beyond their anger and fear. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is now touted as the only form of psychotherapy that is well supported by the evidence and recommended by physicians. (It is also much preferred by insurance companies given the promise of quick relief, and short-term therapy).

While there is certainly nothing wrong with genuine happiness and CBT, used especially in cases of “catastrophizing” thought, (where small things become debilitating worries), there is so much more to the mystery of persons. There is nothing wrong with searching for positive solutions to life’s problems either, but are we being suckered into a universe of smiley faces and emoticons: a plain vanilla and superficial way of living that is neither examined nor fully lived?

Is happiness the right goal or is it, as Baggini argues, the quest for truth, wisdom, and deep understanding? Worshipping at the altars of happiness seems at least conceptually correlated with the cry for relevance in education that led to the elimination of departments of history owing to under-enrollment at some U.S.  universities, the proliferation of “cream puff” courses that are not too taxing, and a myriad of professional licensing short cuts.

What’s so terrible about struggling? To look at oneself is to face one’s demons, our ignorance, and the plethora of paradoxes and dilemmas that make life at once rich and confusing. It’s not fun but it is real.

“All things in moderation,” advises Socrates, and this seems the soundest advice. A rich and joyful life is not necessarily even often a happy one. It has a lot of drama in it, commitments that are often challenging, and vexing circumstances that must be managed. There are deep lows and great heights, but the consistent quality of a joyful life is that it is meaningful.

It’s interesting that so many young people are waiting to marry, living together instead to “kick the tires” so to speak, and see if the relationship works out. How are they defining “working out”? Are they waiting for the first sign that it might not be perfectly happy? Are they waiting for the “joker in the deck” when strain and conflict develops as proof that marriage isn’t a good idea? Marriage is a vow to take it on forever regardless of how it all turns out. It is not a vow to happiness but one of definitive choice based on instinct.

I, for one, admire those who take large vows with gusto and intent to permanence knowing full well that it wont be a walk in the park. I feel close to those who laugh and cry with their whole bodies, fully, spontaneously, and honestly. I respect those who smile naturally and not the many who wear false political smiles and who always say what is politically correct. I am vulnerable and truly myself only with those who have no problem being vulnerable themselves, who don’t have it all together, and who make no pretense about it.

To avoid all that makes one unhappy is to avoid really living. To be always unhappy is to not really know love. Finding the “sweet spot” between the extremes takes self-learning, existential honesty, courage, and realism with the capacity to imagine all the possibilities.

© Brother Anton and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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