Happiness: An unachievable quest?

I can’t help but notice the apparent gloom that’s found a home on many of our faces as we brush past each other in these streets of Nairobi on our way to tend to the businesses which put food on our tables every night. Often, we’re preoccupied with worries about the past and the future, lost in mazes of unending thoughts about a myriad of trivialities. We’re stuck in little prisons of our own making in our own minds, curtly unaware of how our thoughts affect our well-being until we come across the growing furrows of wrinkles on our aging foreheads as the years go by – which ironically, drives us to worry even more. Worry is useless if it doesn’t cajole us to act, so our helpless indulgence in it is in vain and often at the expense of our health. Did I also mention how addictive this worrying thing can be? Worry is the epidemic of these modern times – together with its cousin, unhappiness. These two are a stark reminder of elusive happiness really is. You know, many things in this lifetime have proven to be elusive. Power is one of them. Freedom is another – have you ever yearned for freedom so bad that the yearning itself is a prison of its own? But of all things elusive and fleeting that this world has promised humanity since time immemorial, happiness is one of the most mysterious. At least in my view.

Think about all the self-help books, many of which are bestsellers, promising ounces of happiness, only if you do this and that…

Think about how many ads are packaged and presented on our screens, with promises of pure happiness only if you buy this product or the other one…

Think about how many governments have been elected on the promise of economic growth & prosperity, with the basic assumption that this growth and prosperity will automatically lead to constant happiness – a conventional narrative which screams to says that ‘if I give you land for you to till, a house for you and spouse to raise your kids in, good roads for your posh cars to cruise on when you’re moving around our city, and good joints for you to indulge in and forget your troubles over the weekend as you sip your favorite poison & listen to your favorite music – why else would you not be happy?’

Imagine waking up every morning to a view of the sunrise from your bed in your grandiose mansion in a pristine location, with the partner of your dreams by your side, and still have that stubborn empty feeling that you’d hoped would have been wiped away by that palatial home that you now own, and that partner that you now call yours. Tricky, isn’t it? I’m not saying that it isn’t possible to be happy when we have all these things. I’m just saying that perhaps this happiness thing is a personal and philosophical problem more than it is a product that can be bought on a shelf in Tuskys Supermarket or a high that can be gotten off a substance that will probably leave you more depressed after it wears off. Conversely, I’m saying that it is the expectation that buying all these will ultimately lead us to constant happiness that is our enemy here. The unmet expectations are the gates that are locking us out of the ideal world of constant happiness. I really don’t know, it’s eluded me too.

I sometimes ponder on the words of many writers and thinkers who have recently presented the notion that we are living in both interesting and tragic times. Interesting because technology has turned the world into a global village in which we have become more connected on an unprecedented level by social media, and tragic because even though we’re more connected than before, on a personal level, we feel more disconnected & disengaged. We now have access to too much information on what’s going on around the world, and this overload of information is making us more anxious and disoriented. Perhaps this is contributing to the so-called unhappiness epidemic. And this epidemic, in turn, has come accompanied by its fair share of problems – specifically mental health problems.

When I mentioned that people I meet in the streets of Nairobi seem less happy and more troubled, I should have said how often I contrast this seemingly constant gloom with the unending smiles that dominate most social media photos. Perhaps the people I meet on the streets are a whole different lot than the ones I see on social media.

In any case, my perception is that people are basically unhappy.  This notwithstanding the statistics that show that economic growth has risen by 5.7% in the first quarter of the year. Contrast this with a 4.8% growth within the same period last year, and you’d expect Kenyans to be happier – that is if economic growth leads to happiness linearly. But apparently, we aren’t. Or are we? Perhaps this is an oversimplification of the situation, but I’m not an economist. Nonetheless, I hope the fact that this apparent economic growth hasn’t meant that Kenyans will be perceived to be more happy will spark our minds to think about this holistically.

To me, it proves that happiness is indeed elusive. Or that the increasing dissatisfaction we are all experiencing in our lives is because of the many expectations we have heaped onto our modern society, despite all the apparent gains that we’ve made.

In my view, we’re demanding more of life, and from life, than before. We’re more entitled now. And we have social media to remind us of these entitlements, and the ones that we are yet to get a grasp on – the stuff we are yet to buy, places we are yet to visit and milestones we are yet to achieve.

Is there a link between this apparently growing dissatisfaction and the increase in cases of mental health issues? Yesterday being the day we mark the World  Suicide Prevention Day, shouldn’t we take into consideration the emerging and unseen challenges that our societies globally are facing? Shouldn’t we find more holistic ways of measuring the well-being of our societies? Perhaps it’s up to us to remind ourselves that the far we’ve come is good enough, not to say that we shouldn’t strive for more and for better, but at least shouldn’t we balance this ambition for greater and better with contentment and gratitude for everything that we already have, be it good health, loving families, a roof over our heads and the spirit of good cheer? Or is happiness overrated, and we should lower the expectation brought about by the conventional promise that we can be happy, constantly, in this life? What does happiness mean for you?

Picture Credits: http://www.pixabay.com

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