A life well lived doesn't come from the pursuit of happiness

By Christian Chan, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Hong Kong

This is a good time to focus on century-old values, such as eating well, getting enough rest, exercise, and devoting our lives to serving others

By Christian Chan, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Hong Kong |

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If even the rich and famous find life unbearable, what hope is there for us ordinary people? It is sad to hear people, young or old, taking their own lives. When they are those we look up to and admire, the impact is especially devastating.

The suicide of celebrities leaves a scar on those near to them and also those who are far removed from their lives. How can they – with such talent and charisma, friendships and fans – be so dissatisfied with life? In a society in which celebrities are idolised, are theirs not the lives we all aspire to have?

The media and experts often attribute self-destructive acts to “mental disorder”. There is some truth to that, but we might just as readily blame gravity, or the bullet, or the drugs.

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A mental disorder is a cluster of behavioural, emotional and cognitive symptoms. Scientists group different combinations of such symptoms together and give them a common label, a “diagnosis”. Two people given the same diagnosis can experience very different symptoms and problems. Some people with depression lose their appetite, some eat excessively, and others experience no change in appetite at all. Most people diagnosed with bipolar disorder don’t hurt themselves; few people living with schizophrenia are violent. These diagnoses are “updated”, and the configuration of symptoms that are supposed to define them are changed every so often. Mental disorders are malleable social concepts, not fixed medical diseases.

Mental disorders are not merely biological. Neurochemical imbalance or genetic inheritance is not the “root causes” of destructive thoughts or behaviour. More often, mental disorders are a result of early life experiences, personality, thinking patterns, relationships, lifestyle, and circumstances. Instead of explaining away a person’s presumably spur-of-the-moment suicidal act with a mental disorder, we should ask the more fundamental question: what makes them so unhappy and dissatisfied?

In the same week local singer-songwriter Ellen Joyce Loo took her own life, the media was focused on the nine DSE superstars and where they chose to continue their education. What does this say about our city’s values? These two stories, one on despair and the other on prosperity, seem poles apart, but they are flip sides of the same coin.

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We tell youth to get this grade, that degree, and that job, and by doing so, they will attain success and will live happily ever after. For those who are fortunate enough to achieve all that they aspired to, their success does not necessarily bring the happiness they expected. One might subsequently conclude that they must be broken in some way, that they must have depression, and that they should visit a psychiatrist or psychologist. But the pill won’t change much if we don’t also challenge our views of value and worth. One such view that requires re-examination is our fanatical pursuit of “happiness” and, in particular, our beliefs about its importance.

Feelings come and go like tides. Some days I’m happy and some days I’m not and that’s okay. If we expect to be happy all the time, we will be disappointed by the inevitable crises in life, big and small. If we think true happiness only exists in some remote exotic country, we will likely be disillusioned. Life is by default difficult. Sugar-coating it with false promises and expectations of feeling happy will likely cause even more disappointment. The pursuit of happiness can become yet another stressor, another source of dissatisfaction.

Positive thinking can lead to emotional stability and happiness

Wise men and women throughout history have taught us we should instead do good. Eat well, get enough rest, exercise, and spend time in nature and with one another. They also remind us to perform our duties, to honour promises, respect our elders, take care of the young and vulnerable, be thankful and grateful, seek a greater purpose to our existence, and devote our lives to service. Different strands of contemporary science are converging to confirm that this conventional wisdom represents good advice, not merely for ourselves but also for society and civilisation. For what does a man stand to profit, if he gains the whole world, but loses his own soul?

No one would ever know what went through Loo’s mind on that fateful morning. What we could learn though is that taking care of each other might entail safeguarding them from certain individualistic values. If our life goal is fixated around how good we feel, we will inevitably be disappointed. Focusing on living a healthy life(style), being flexible with our feelings, and turning our attention to the needs of others might actually be the century-old medicine that we should try again. We should celebrate those ordinary people who are embracing these virtues, day after day.

Edited by M. J. Premaratne