The happiness scam

Rainn Wilson, the comedic actor best know as “Dwight” from The Office, delivered a brilliant commencement speech to the graduating class at USC a couple of months ago. For those who aren’t aware, Wilson is one of the world’s best-known Baha’is, and has never been shy about broaching the topic of spirituality, especially with young people. Here he was at his best.

The topic of the speech was, more or less, how simply “pursuing happiness” can leave us feeling empty and unsatisfied, and how an attitude of selflessness can bring us a deeper feeling of fulfillment. Here’s an excerpt (a long one, but worth reading in its entirety):

Happiness is so fleeting. It’s like an amusement park ride. It’s like cotton candy. I mean, it looks so amazing: It’s delightful and fluffy and pink and you joyously eat it and then almost immediately regret your decision. Your fingers are sticky the rest of the day, and you’re undergoing an almost immediate insulin crash from the half pound of sugar that you just sucked down. You’re hungry again almost immediately and you begin the chase again for ingestible happiness right away. Happiness in our contemporary culture is something to be chased, something that’s just around the corner, something outside of ourselves. There’s a kind of a “if then” proposition about happiness. For instance: “If I get a job at a top law firm then I will be happy.” “If I get married to the perfect man or woman then I will be happy.” “If I can become more popular then I will he happy…” etc. It’s the whole point of commercialism, too, and materialism. If you buy this car, eat this cheeseburger, wear these jeans, use these headphones, then you will be happy. And you know what? Buy the jeans, eat the cheeseburger, the result is never happiness. Joy or contentment. It’s always the same. We’re never satisfied. It never meets our needs fulfills our standards. We’re left empty, wanting something more. It’s cotton candy. Fleeting, sticky, unsatisfying….

Volunteering, helping, showing kindness, sacrificing your time and energy, giving selflessly, these are the things that will give you the greatest human flourishing. And what a strange dichotomy in this “me me me” culture we live in. Focus on yourself: you’ll find only misery, grasping, depression, emptiness, dissatisfaction. Focus on helping others: joy, contentment, gratitude, happiness… So go forth young men and women spiritual beings all, with your pieces of paper, your souls and your hearts, go forth and undertake our new national motto, “life liberty and the pursuit of service”, and your lives will be the richer for it.

This is potentially tricky territory — I mean, the speaker is basically telling young people at one of the happiest moments of their lives not to strive to be happy — and I truly admire his courage. But the main message here should not be controversial. That’s because, as pointed out in the speech, science actually confirms that acts of selflessness tend to lead to greater happiness. (Nevermind that it represents a core teaching of nearly every religion.) And yet, from my perspective the fact that selflessness, rather than selfishness, is more likely to lead to fulfillment and life satisfaction gets a shamelessly low level of attention in the modern discourse. Instead, we are hit with a steady stream of messages preaching the opposite, including the semi-sarcastic-yet-inescapably-depressing image below, which I captured at our local mall food court:

Spiritual enlightenment was never so easy nor delicious

In the same tradition as the religious faiths founded before it, the Baha’i Faith in countless passages warns us not to rely on the material world for fulfillment. One of my favorite passages written by Baha’u’llah is this one (which I’ve shared before), which compares the world itself to a desert mirage:

The world is but a show, vain and empty, a mere nothing, bearing the semblance of reality… Verily I say, the world is like the vapor in a desert, which the thirsty dreameth to be water and striveth after it with all his might, until when he cometh unto it, he findeth it to be mere illusion.

For us to look to something bigger than the world around us is not an unnatural act or suppressing our natural selves. The human being’s true nature, Baha’u’llah teaches, is more noble than that. In the same passage as the one above, He compares the childish obsession with our material lives with a fallen bird:

Ye are even as the bird which soareth, with the full force of its mighty wings and with complete and joyous confidence, through the immensity of the heavens, until, impelled to satisfy its hunger, it turneth longingly to the water and clay of the earth below it, and, having been entrapped in the mesh of its desire, findeth itself impotent to resume its flight to the realms whence it came. Powerless to shake off the burden weighing on its sullied wings, that bird, hitherto an inmate of the heavens, is now forced to seek a dwelling-place upon the dust.

Why is this so difficult for us to learn? How come we feel compelled to chase after things that are so ineffective in delivering real happiness? It’s universally acknowledged that true happiness can’t easily be achieved with material things. And yet, we still keep reaching for the cotton candy.

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4 thoughts on “The happiness scam

  1. I think people are coming around to this, I really do. I don’t necessarily think that it’s caused by religion and spirituality, but maybe just a natural turning of the tide after decades of fruitless (no pun intended!) consumerism.

    The notion of doing something for someone else as a way to help manage depression or mourning, for instance, is pretty well accepted. You’re right though, it doesn’t get enough attention and we should be trying to change the discourse around what life is really all about.

  2. As one who learned that the “poverty” of Peace Corps service to be in reality a wealth of rich experiences and personal grow, I am well in tune with the messages here. As a city planner by trade, I don’t think the best measure of a good piece of geography is the per capital income of its inhabitants. It’s the one where neighbors smile at each other the most!

    • Larry, so good to see your comment and right on: measuring income is often a poor way to measure wellbeing. There is a fine balance of course between acknowledging that poverty need not mean misery, and resisting the tendency to romanticize life in the developing world. I’m sure you got both perspectives during your Peace Corps years.

      Thanks for your comment, please keep ’em coming.

  3. The problem is not the pursuit of happiness. The problems are 1) People over-emphasizing one emotion such as happiness or love and pretending that that’s what makes the world go round. 2) That people are gullible, often willingly. Restraint can be good and it’s not actually that difficult to practice. But people want instant gratification. That’s because they’ve been trained NOT by businesses but by religion and government to put their trust in authority. Do what they are told and don’t question it. So, naturally they do what they are told when ads tell them to buy a product.

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