I remember, with the sort of clarity reserved for those pivotal moments in life during which, you later realise, a huge change was underway, the card I was given for my 22nd birthday by a close friend. On the front was a glossy, high-resolution photograph of a long highway on a sunny day. The asphalt stretched into the distance in the middle of an arid desert. To the left, there was a giant sign with an arrow giving directions. It read: "Destination: happiness."
I was at university at the time and early adult life, like that road, stretched out in possibility. Nothing was irrevocable, anything could happen. The thing is that I've been journeying towards that place – happiness – ever since I got that card and, more than a decade later, I’m still no clearer on its location.
None of this is to say that I am unhappy. I’m not. Quite the opposite. I remember feeling happy less often when I was younger, in fact, and now – at 34 years old – I am far lighter, having shed the weight of expectation that a person carries around in their 20s and several versions of myself along with it.
I mean that arriving at happiness – the pure and unadulterated joy and contentment that, we are told by life coaches, is possible to achieve if we work hard enough or is sold by companies in the shape of everything from period pants to Coca-Cola – parking up and making my home in a place where everything is always cheerful, optimistic and upbeat has proved elusive.
I’m not the only one searching for somewhere that I increasingly think may not exist. It’s no wonder, when the latest data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that one in five Australians experienced a mental disorder in the past year.
As so often happens today, whenever there is a structural problem such as underinvestment in public mental health or overexposure to influencers with abs on the internet, the online culture of 'self-help' fills the void. On Instagram, if you search #happiness you’ll find 169 million posts to choose from. Over on TikTok, posts with the same hashtag have gained 17.7 billion views. There are also 'happiness coaches' who promise to lead their followers down the road to emotional nirvana where, I can only assume, it is like being on holiday all the time, the economy never crashes, there’s no such thing as inflation and energy bills are affordable.
But what if our obsession with finding happiness, combined with the pressure we put on ourselves when we don’t feel it, is actually making us unhappy? Life is imperfect, as are we. We are aware of our imperfection even as we fight it by trying constantly to perfect ourselves with 'self-love' and 'self-care' because we cannot accept that imperfection, seeking instead to hack our way into a higher level in the matrix by turning the achievement of happiness into another thing on our never-ending to-do list.
Dr Rafael Euba is a consultant psychiatrist and the author of You Are Not Meant To Be Happy. So Stop Trying! He argues that happiness is a human construct and that chasing it is futile because we are simply not wired to be in a constant state of happiness (although he does accept that money, drugs, sex and food will make the quest to find it more enjoyable).
More than that, Dr Euba says that aiming for a constant state of contentment – let alone happiness – is actually going against our genetic design because it would lower our guard against potential external threats to our survival.
"The problem," he explains over the phone from his office, "is that in the past our ancestors knew that [wanting to be happy] wasn’t a realistic proposition. They worried about survival – more basic and immediate concepts. Today we have developed a fantasy that we can actually become happy and stay happy."
That said, Dr Euba concedes that "the ambition to be happy is quite natural". Who doesn’t want to be happy? The issue is that it has been extracted from the well of human experience, packaged up and sold back to us as an emotional state which is 'achievable' if we do certain things.
Organised religion was once the mainstream communicator of this message. Its modern quasi-spiritual counterpart, the 'self-help' book, is now the main purveyor of the idea. Consider the bestseller The Secret. It has sold millions of people the idea that positive thinking and optimism is enough to overcome hard times and change our circumstances. That idea, in and of itself, is enough to make you miserable because, take it from me, there are truly some situations that you cannot manifest your way out of – the illness or death of a loved one, for instance. In trying, you will only feel like you have failed.
And, Dr Euba says, even if you are so enlightened that you somehow manage to reach a state of emotional contentment that feels like happiness, the nature of being human is that something else will come along and your emotional reactions will become mixed and messy once again.
"We are children of nature," Dr Euba continues. "We want to believe that we have a special place on the planet and that we are perhaps here with some sort of transcendental mission to achieve something other than our natural mission, which is to stay alive and reproduce. In that respect, we are no different to a bird or cat or to any other creature on the planet."
"Both our positive and negative emotions are directed towards promoting the possibility of staying alive or avoiding the possibility of dying," he explains. "So I propose that we should abandon the mission of achieving happiness as a goal and accept that our daily existence is inevitably going to be made up of negative and positive emotions which come together in a very messy way."
As living becomes fundamentally more difficult for millions of people because of rising inflation, which makes the basics of existence such as buying food, being able to afford a home and keeping it cool or warm more expensive and less possible, there is something liberating – not only for us as individuals but collectively – about Dr Euba’s perspective on happiness.
Happiness is generally measured by researchers as a person’s reported satisfaction with their life. Given that stress, anxiety and depression – the direct opposites of happiness – are responses to threats to our survival, it is completely reasonable to feel unsatisfied right now. The less wealthy you are, the harder it will be to achieve satisfaction, let alone the basics required to stay alive.
The pursuit of happiness, much like the positive thinking that is supposed to help you find it, is a sugar pill of conservatism because it tells you that you and only you are responsible for your wellbeing. That simply isn’t true.
Feeling unhappy against that backdrop doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It means you’re human. In acknowledging that fact, freeing yourself of the expectation that happiness can be attained and starting to look outside of yourself, you might not only feel better but find ways to come together with other people and share the weight of the collective struggles we all face. That might just make you feel happy for a moment, too.
Studies show that the best path to contentment – however fleeting – is signposted not by social media coaches but by real-world social connection. When my friend gave me that card, on my birthday over ten years ago, I do think I believed that arriving at happiness, one day, was possible. Learning that it is not a place you get to, put down roots and make your home is not, as you might think, disappointing. It’s freeing. I began to understand that during the COVID lockdowns and, as the world around continues to throw up huge obstacles not just for me, but for the people I care about, any moment of joy – however long it may last – is something to savour as opposed to grip hold of.