I have returned from my adventure in and through Costa Rica having learned more than I can write in 100 Microsoft Word pages. The most oft-asked question I have gotten since coming back (“are you happy now?”) mirrors the advice I received the most before leaving, which was “do what makes you happy.” I hold a special place for all who uttered the second statement, but I now challenge our common understanding or misunderstanding of happiness. What I learned about happiness during my time in Costa Rica is far more valuable than the amount of happiness I attained while there. As info, I am sometimes happier than I was before leaving, but will always be more at peace for having gone there.
Before leaving for my sabbatical, I was well aware of the happiness movement in the United States. I read some books on the subject; watched documentaries; used happiness tracking mobile apps; and maintained a daily gratitude practice. Having taken all of these practices to a different and perhaps “happier” place, I am now more convinced than before that happiness should not be the highest ideal we all strive for.
Without further ado, here is some of what I learned about happiness and an explanation of how I would revise the commonly held happiness perspective.
To start, the endearing line, “I just want to see you happy” is misphrased and should be, “I just want to see you self-actualized and at peace.” This is nitpicky, but true. Happiness, as a goal, will not bring happiness in the same way people mean it when they say, “do what makes you happy.” Happiness, like all feelings, is temporary. In the words of Tim Minchin, “Happiness is like an orgasm. If you think about it too much, it goes away.” Vulgar, but true.
I can gain and lose happiness within minutes by streaming videos on Youtube. If I watch light-hearted, bubbly videos all day, I may continue in my state of happiness, but will simultaneously lose inner peace from the inaction.
Happiness is also like other feelings, because it cannot always be trusted. Happiness at the misfortune of others, for example, should not be elongated. Further, happiness that comes from cheating your way to success is not trustworthy happiness either. We need to be mindful of how happiness is characterized. Unhappiness may be an indicator that you are not on track to self-actualization and inner peace, but fleeting happiness alone will not get you there either.
We should aim to be at peace while striving for self-actualization, which is the highest of the human needs identified on Maslow’s hierarchy. So, the ultimate goal should be self-actualization, which means one attains their maximum or fullest self. From chasing self-actualization, we should easily find inner peace. Happiness has a part in all of this, but, again, should not be the goal.
In our quest for self-actualization, we will have a significant advantage if we are happy. To the contrary, being unhappy and continuing to do the unhappiness inducing things will keep us from self-actualization. We may grow into a less-fulfilled, less happy version of someone else, but will not be self-actualized and may not find peace. On the other hand, if we avoid unhappy situations, the lack of unhappiness frees up the energy we need to craft our happiness skills that can serve as valuable tools on our way to self-actualization and inner peace.
Therefore, happiness is a skill to be crafted and honed and then taken with us on our way to self-actualization. So, instead of focusing on doing what makes you happy, do what doesn’t make you unhappy and allows you to be your best self. Craft and use happiness while doing this, which will make you satisfied and at fulfilled. Once you feel fulfilled and satisfied, push both of those feelings further up the hill and continue chasing them. Do this and you will eventually reach self-actualization and its numerous by-products including peace.
Going to Costa Rica helped me on my way to becoming everything I can be. I attained more peace because of this and will push fulfillment and satisfaction away and chase it some more, so that I can grow into self-actualization. My happiness will be carefully guarded and maintained as it will be a necessary tool on this journey, but it will not be the end goal.