“How happy are you?”
Happiness studies are all the rage these days, and happiness books abound. The most popular courses at Ivy league colleges are devoted to happiness and what it takes to get it. The tricky thing is, happiness surveys are self-reporting. People respond to questions like:
I am pleased with the way I am.
I feel that life is rewarding.
I am comfortable with the way I look.
The results of surveys like this are compromised because we have all been programmed to believe that things that cannot make us happy actually will. The system teaches us what a rewarding life looks like, or how to be attractive and sought-after. And if we’re one of the “lucky” ones who achieve these false ideals—at least partially—our response to the survey will confirm that, yes, we are happy. It’s a little like having the Warden present us with the prison’s highest commendation.
If you’ve lived very long, you know what it’s like to win some of those commendations and then realize what a waste it’s been. As Thomas Merton put it, “People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success, only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”
So instead of learning how to achieve empty goals, it’s better to unlearn all those lessons of happiness. That is the difficult path of any spiritual life. You have to drop a lot of assumptions, lose so many treasured certainties, admit how much you don’t know, how wrong you’ve been for all these years. Now you’re ready to hear the Beatitudes again, that fabulous guide to happiness that blows every circuit in the conventional system. Jesus speaks of a joy that flourishes in all the places we have been taught to flee. Happy are the poor, the meek, the mourners, the peacemakers, the merciful. It feels weird to try to live by an alternative set of values, but you feel strangely attracted. If there’s a happiness that can withstand any wave of suffering or loss, you want to try.
Many of you I know are on this path, or want to be with all your heart. In a culture of voracious addition, it will always feel crazy or stupid to be subtracting, losing, relinquishing. Nobody wants to stand there naked and undefended. But keep unlearning. You’re in good company. “I am a slow unlearner,” said Ursula LeGuin. “But I love my unteachers.”