Happiness: the Musical
A new analogy for the way we think of happiness
It’s great, right?
I think we can all agree that happiness is pretty universally beloved.
It’s not “life, liberty, and the pursuit of ambivalence” — it’s not “don’t worry, be meh.”
No, we want to feel happy!
Socrates told us to be moral because it would make us happy. Jewish mystics taught that it was a commandment to be happy. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is a total baller, and he’s like “Happiness is why we’re all here, bro.”
But happiness, for all its awesomeness, is actually pretty hard to come by.
After millennia of existence and nearly 100 billion humans trying to figure it all out, no one really has an answer to how to be happy all the time.
I think that’s pretty weird, don’t you?
If happiness is this massive plot point in the drama of humankind, shouldn’t we have a better sense of how to achieve it? How come we keep getting snared into systems and relationships that keep us unhappy? Why is happiness such a fleeting sensation and does it always have to be?
Spoiler Alert: I don’t have the answers. Sorry to disappoint.
But maybe we can start to think about the clues that’ll put us on the right path!
There have been recent advances in the scientific study of happiness. We now know things about the psychological underpinnings of happiness that are counter-intuitive, like how people who win the lottery are usually no happier after they win than before, or that getting a dog is statistically one of the easiest ways to feel happier.
We can also look to ancient wisdom like that of the Buddha and Epicurus, both of whom advised that happiness is more likely to be attained by curbing our desires than by achieving them.
There’s common wisdom that happiness is more durable when it comes from fulfilling activities, like community service or acts of charity, and that having a solid group of friends makes us feel connected and joyful.
I’m sure there are tons of paths to happiness that have been practiced throughout the centuries, and we can’t list them all, but insert your own conception of what makes people happy here.
And of course, there’s sex, drugs, and rock & roll.
“When in doubt, you can always count on cocaine.” -Archbishop Desmond Tutu*
*jk, he didn’t say that. Please don’t sue me, Desmond.
So what are we to make of all these paths to happiness? Which of them hold the most promise and which of them are going to lead us astray?
Well, you may be thinking, perhaps they’re all right!
Happiness could be the type of thing where many sides up a mountain lead to the same mountaintop — there are clearly lots of different sources of joy, and they all have the potential to make us happy. Many paths, one goal.
This analogy works, and I love using analogies because they help our minds process new connections really effectively.
But in a real hike up a mountain, taking one path precludes you from taking another. Also, I don’t like the idea of happiness as something to be achieved like a destination you definitively reach. So this mountain analogy isn’t perfect.
Instead, I’d like to propose a new conceptualization of happiness with a new analogy: music!
Making music isn’t something that you achieve, it’s the byproduct created by something you do. Practicing an instrument produces music, just as practicing something you love will produce happiness.
In this analogy, the different approaches to happiness are like musical instruments. You can play the piano and the violin and the trumpet and strive for musical mastery on all of them, and excelling at one doesn’t prevent you from excelling at another. In fact, playing several instruments can help you make new connections between them and they can reinforce one another.
Just like music, there is no such thing as perfection in the pursuit of happiness. You can have really wonderful musical experiences and really terrible musical experiences no matter your level of training or background or age. The best thing is not to get discouraged and quit altogether. If you’ve been trying to find happiness for years to no avail, that may just mean you haven’t found your instrument yet.
Music can be deeply personal. What sounds beautiful to someone can sound discordant to someone else. So too, the activities and relationships that bring you joy may be anathema to someone else. The best pursuit is to strive for authenticity: everyone else may be listening to top ten pop tunes, but just because they’re popular songs doesn’t mean they’re good. We respect the people who delve deep into their musical tastes and develop a keen ear for what they like, just like we admire the iconoclasts who buck mainstream trends and blaze their own trail. Be bold when searching for happiness, and don’t settle for what works for others if it’s not working for you.
Also, happiness and music share the unique combination of hard work and payoff. Practicing the piano is difficult, but eventually, the reward is worth the effort, and the practice becomes self-sustaining. I vividly remember the moment when I achieved that feeling with music. I was 12, and I had my first jazz lesson after 7 years of classical lessons. The freeing sensation of improvisation made me feel so motivated, and I didn’t want to leave the piano. It was challenging, but the reward was worth it. Now, practicing the piano is an ongoing process of joy and discovery for me, and the momentum created keeps me coming back to the keys. So too, happiness perpetuates itself, in that the happier you feel, the more likely you are to feel happy in the future by pursuing that happiness again. The practice manufactures its own propellant.
Just as there are no shortcuts to musical mastery, there are no approaches to sustainable happiness that won’t require serious effort. Yes, you can go to an amusement park for an afternoon, but that will only produce the fleeting type of happiness that we’re trying to outgrow. I’m not saying that there isn’t room for simple, transient bursts of joy during one’s lifetime, but they should be treated as one musical genre among many that shouldn’t be overplayed.
Lastly, just as with music, we should think of our happiness in terms of beauty. To create a rich, vibrant song requires variety, dissonance, tension, release, grace, and lots of patience. So too, the pursuit of happiness should be beautiful in and of itself — a practice that is as inspiring to hear at its end as during its creation. When we are approaching the end of the score, we should look back to the symphony we’ve created and smile at the heavenly offering we’ve made with our lives.