Happiness is possible. Just not the way we may think.
We live in a time that, for the most part, doesn’t support the imperfections of human beings. There is very little space in society for flaws. This applies to whether we are trying to find a solution to a particular flaw, accept the flaw, or help other people accept their flaws. Society has largely neglected to encourage compassion for each other and instead, has inspired a generation of people competing with one another to be the best version of themselves.
The stand-out question for most people is usually: ‘what can I do to be a better version of myself today so that my life can be the best version possible, and I can be happy?’.
But the question we should be asking is: ‘does the best version of ourselves and our life even exist?’
I think it’s important for the sake of humanity’s wellbeing that we challenge the impossible standards of so-called excellence and rise above the mere spirit of competition that society values.
The ‘happy ending’ narrative
Society feeds us a problematic ‘happy ending’ narrative in many ways; most successfully though mainstream films and in particular romantic comedies and children’s films, as well as modern retellings of fairy tales. Most of these have a similar structure: key characters are introduced, something bad happens to them, but in the end the problem is fixed and the credits roll. A study on the brain’s reaction to happy endings suggests that we subconsciously expect life to happen the same way as we see in films, books and other fictional sources. Another interesting finding is that we tend to forget what the characters went through to get their happy ending and are usually not shown what they go through post happy-ending stage. We indeed forget that life is much more complicated than a neatly constructed film or book ending. Life fluctuates between peaks and ebbs. But we wilfully ignore this reality and continue chasing that mythical happy ending. If this sounds cynical, that’s because it is.
We are force-fed the happy ending narrative and the adjoining idea that all of our problems can and should be ‘fixed’ in order for us to be happy, or to become the best version of ourselves. Although the happy ending conviction does provide some comfort that things won’t always be bad, this way of looking at life only gives short-term relief. Long term, it builds unrealistic expectations and sets us up for failure. Why failure? Well, because ultimately not every problem can be fixed, and not every problem needs fixing before we can be happy.
Even if we do eventually get that happy ever after, it is human nature to find something else to fix or strive towards — and so the cycle of discontent keeps running. Eventually, we tire ourselves out fighting all of life’s hurdles only to get to the finish line and discover that we aren’t happy the way we thought we would be — the way it was served up in the films. And so, the happiness we naively thought we could replicate keeps evading us.
Gelong Thubten’s alternative to the happy ending narrative
Being exposed to the happy ending aspect in films and books carries the danger of letting ourselves get swept up in the comparison spiral between our lives and the lives of the fictional characters. Of course cinema and fiction are not the only culprits perpetuating this tendency. Advertising and of course social media, in particular Instagram, play a significant part in this problem too. It is true that social media fosters a space for people rallying for a more accepting society. But, stripped of this external goal, the internal tendency to generate pleasing fictions is something that even its creators admit is damaging our society.
This is where Gelong Thubten comes in. The idea of chasing happiness is nothing new. The author and monk explores this phenomenon in his book, A Monk’s Guide To Happiness. He calls it ‘the wanting mind’ and explains that: ‘wanting implies that we don’t have. If we break this down, we can see how the wanting mind becomes a habitual pattern, where we are always wanting something’.
We want money, we want the latest technology, we want to lose weight, we want to be in a better job — we usually want all the things we don’t have. It’s natural to want more for ourselves but it’s also crucial to recognise that this pattern of desire is only going to provide us with short-term happiness. Once the elation wears off, we go back to our ‘wanting mindset’, ready to chase the next goal. Thubten explores whether happiness can alternatively be found within ourselves, rather than from external sources. He maintains that it doesn’t matter if we haven’t got the things we want: ‘if we can discover that our minds are bigger than our problems, we’ll see that deep down we have the potential to be truly happy’.
Perhaps happiness is something at once more complex but also easier than we imagined. Stopping the eternal chasing of goals and starting to give ourselves space for acceptance of how things are, as well as becoming more compassionate and free from judgement, is what we all should really be striving for. This is a different kind of space. One where we are the best version of ourselves by doing the best we can in any given moment. It is a space that recognises our human fragility and fallibility. And, that it’s okay not have everything figured out.
We are never going to be perfect, ever. Some days we just won’t be happy, and that’s okay. Other days we’ll think ‘wow this is hard’, and that’s fine too because perfect is largely relative and we aren’t bad for never being able to reach some pre-set target. All we can be is our best at a given moment in time, which might be quite different to ‘our best’ tomorrow or what was our best yesterday. Showing up everyday and trying our best is all we can do. Happiness is somewhere inside that self-surrender.