I just read “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking” by Oliver Burkemann. It presented several different counter-intuitive paths to happiness, having first discussed the limitations and ineffectiveness of a lot of the “positive thinking” cult.
One of these paths was Stoicism. I had never come across this philosophy before, but it sounded like my kind of thing! Stoicism advocates mulling over the “worst that could happen” – and sometimes even seeking out feared experiences – because often when examined closely and realistically, that worst is not the true disaster we initially fear. Rather than seeking reassurance that the worst won’t happen, comfort and security is found through being able to truly accept the possibility of it happening.
This doesn’t mean being indifferent to whatever happens – a bad outcome is still something to try and avoid, up to a point – it’s just about having a realistic and proportionate view of things, which for some reason seems to require a bit of effort. A lot of the time, when we seek happiness, we’re actually just seeking pleasure / avoiding displeasure, and ignoring the deeper ways in which happiness can come about.
It reminded me of the research on lottery winners and paraplegics, which suggested happiness levels don’t follow expected patterns, and big changes in circumstances might even have no long-term effect on happiness. What does all this mean for seeking happiness, for oneself or others?
It’s difficult to define the true “best” when sometimes the worst brings gifts that the best cannot. Perhaps it’s stupid to even think so one-dimensionally. Happiness is a big, weird, complex thing. And happiness is only one part of a good life; its presence in a slum does not make a slum a good thing.