Listening to Pharrell William’s runaway hit “Happy” over the past few weeks got me thinking about happiness. As David Brooks noted in his NYT op-ed piece earlier this month, “We live in a culture awash in talk about happiness,” and bookstore shelves are filled with thousands of books on the subject.
Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman found that we predict happiness based on unreliable data and define our experiences of it with selective memory. Should we long after sometime so seductive, yet unreliable?
Henry David Thoreau once said, “The question is not what you look at but what you see.”
It is a universal truth that we have trouble seeing the world accurately, and our subjective experience of happiness is more often than not a result of our past experiences. The mind is like a hall of mirrors, a distorted lens through which we perceive ourselves and the world around us. These distortions affect all aspects of our lives — the way we love, our productivity, and the way we relate to family and friends.
Some people see the world through a lens of life’s injustices, while some see it as a reflection of self-glorification. Some pursue relationships not to find new love, but to relive old wounds from childhood. Some people seek perfection in the world, and make unrealistic demands of themselves and others.
Our thoughts and feelings are powerful, but many are based on old ways of seeing, and not reflective of the truth. We are not looking at the world through clear lenses.
So maybe we chase rainbows when we seek happiness. Seeking truth might be a better goal. But first, as Thoreau said, we have to look and truly see what we see when we look at the world. If there is something that’s not working, or feels wrong, or causes pain or suffering, look and see what it is and try to fix it. For while “Happy” may be fun for now, what really sustains us is the search for what is true, and the profound satisfaction of its discovery.