It is the small things that brighten up my days during this global pandemic. Going from one Zoom meeting to the next one is mentally exhausting, but it is different if the person on the other side of the screen is my 3-month-old niece. No matter how anxious, gloomy or angry I feel, her little smile changes my mood. It has become the most awaited video call of the day.
I could even say I am obsessed with this moment. I need it to keep me going. Seeing her grow and learn so quickly and catching up with my brother have become my main source of happiness nowadays. But the situation is sad too since the strict lockdown restrictions in Spain don’t allow me to meet her in real life yet. One single moment mixes two opposed feelings. It makes me think – what does happiness actually mean?
Happiness is different for everyone. Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “feeling, showing, or causing pleasure or satisfaction”, although it isn’t a very detailed answer to the question. In one of her songs, singer-songwriter Lana del Rey says that happiness is a butterfly – something beautiful, valuable and fragile that we all try to catch. Sometimes we are so close to it that we can almost caress it, but sometimes the butterfly flies away.
Even scientists struggle to define it, probably because their research is too objective for such a subjective concept. They have at least proved that dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins make us happy. These hormones act as a naturally-produced drug to satisfy our brains, probably the reason why we have developed an addiction to pursuing happiness.
On Amazon, there are over 20,000 results for eBooks on how to be happy, showing how crucial this feeling is for us. “Happiness is an instinctive human desire. Negative emotions have their place, but happiness is what we all want for our kids,” says British journalist Ruth Whippman in an interview for The Washington Post. “Every person feels it is important to be happy – it might be the most important thing.”
It is not only important for us as individuals, but also for society. Over the past couple of decades, governments have a greater interest in happiness. Countries compete for the first place in the World Happiness Annual Report, which establishes what countries are the happiest in the world. In the US, happiness is even included in the Declaration of Independence, which considers life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as unalienable rights. But has this obsession gone too far?
Having happiness as the ultimate goal for a successful life can harm people’s mental health. The continued self-evaluation of how happy you feel undermines one’s emotional well-being. “Not only are Americans among the least happy people in the developed world, they also report the highest levels of anxiety,” says Whipmann. In fact, the suicide rate has been rising around the world, reaching a 30-year high in the US in 2017 with an average of 129 suicides per day.
“There’s a lot of pressure to be happy, up to the point where you undervalue yourself if you feel sad,” explains Carme Call, a 54-year-old English teacher from Barcelona. For her, happiness is found in her family and friends, good weather and beach days, but she doesn’t have that at her disposal every day. “Happiness comes and goes,” she says.
Carolina Guirao, a 22-year-old event organizer who suffered from depression as a teenager, believes that society should stop forcing people to be happy all the time. “People should listen to others instead of just telling them to be happy,” she says. “You can have happy moments even when you are depressed, so it is okay if you are not in a good mood every single day.”
There’s too much emphasis on being happy, but there is something more fulfilling – having a meaningful life. “People who have meaning in life are more resilient, they do better in school and at work, and they even live longer,” says Emily Esfahani Smith, author of The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness. “When life is really good and when things are really bad, having meaning gives you something to hold on to,” she adds.
Then, why should we keep searching for happiness? Maybe it is not about the butterfly, it is the pursuit. By changing the perspective, we remove the pressure to be happy and allow ourselves to appreciate the doom and gloom of life. Without our lows, we wouldn’t enjoy our happiness. We wouldn’t enjoy the small things. I wouldn’t enjoy the video call.