The Pursuit of Happiness
Bill Cottringer

Words can rarely capture the essence of an experience in life, especially common or over-used ones. Oddly though, the way you choose to define things like success, happiness, justice, freedom, and love, can often determine how much or how little of these things you actually have in hand. ~The Author.

Happiness Lost

What is happiness?
Easier to say what it’s not—
Not frustration, failure, or fiction,
Or suffering, sadness, or sorrow,
Have we hidden happiness,
Just to enjoy finding it more?
Seems harder to find,
Having so many choices,
Of too many interesting experiences,
Which we dismiss too easily,
With negative judgments,
Before we just experience,
The experience.
Maybe less thinking,
And more letting go,
To lose ourselves,
In enjoying experiences,
Leaving our own legacy
Of Listening, learning, and living?
Or maybe just doing these things
That help us feel that way?

If we have one common goal in life, it is the pursuit of happiness. But that is where this one commonality ends, and the many differences between us start. The pursuit of the experience we call happiness is greatly hampered by the one thing we humans have that animals don’t and that is a compelling sense of self-consciousness which fortifies the illusion that we are separated from the rest of life. This overwhelming belief in the root of the separation, is between our “me” and our “I” self-parts and results in this impossible contradictory conflict:

Happiness includes pleasurable experiences and excuses painful ones.
Solving life’s problems is pleasurable whereas failing to solve these problems is painful.
Therefore, to be happy, we must be able to successfully solve problems,
And if we don’t, we are left with unhappiness.

There are many realities that keep us from solving life’s most perplexing problem—how to stop trying to solve impossible problems, when that in itself is impossible to do or not do. That is at least until we slow down long enough to notice what we have been failing to notice all along, which is the unappealing reality that we are the problem. Here are just a few of these realities about our split from the rest of reality, which are extremely resistive to acknowledging and generally not accepted as being true, despite the evidence to the contrary abounding in our failures:

1. The only thing that is really going on in life is life itself and more importantly, our momentary conscious experience of whatever is going on. What distorts our experience is when we try to slow down the quickly flowing experience and fix it in time and place with words in order to understand it better by comparing it with similar past named experiences or future expected ones. Of course, contrary to popular opinion, neither of these temporal qualities actually exist in the direct experience of reality because it is moving too quickly within the moment and is only comprehended within our limited abstract definition of time. The distance between the experience and thinking seems short, but it is longer than you can think about it. Think about it.

2. Self-consciousness has left us with a divided mind that keeps our brains from functioning as intended—to experience reality as it is, or find the real truth, which includes understanding problems better and seeing their solutions clearer. This is so we can learn to manage the few manageable problems better, see how we are getting in our own the way of solving the solvable ones, and letting go of all the ones that are fraught with impossible contradictions that are virtually impossible to solve. These are the ones along the line of wanting our cake and eat it too. But this is like the futility of our eyes trying to see themselves or our teeth wanting to bite themselves. Not at all possible, but we keep trying anyway, in our divided minds.

3. The process of language began when we wanted to share our experiences with others, when some of our experiences became too big and heavy to carry around to show firsthand. But in putting a fixed, abstract name to anything from an ever-moving experience, we have just put more empty space in between the experience and the word we chose to represent the experience. Good communication only occurs when both parties mutually understand the same connection between the word and the experience as each perceives it, which has already passed to a memory which is just more abstract in connection with the actual experience. Needless to say, miscommunication is more often the norm than good communication, and this only further compounds the abstract thinking process about the communication. Stop a moment and let the absurdity of what we are all doing sink in.

4. Our divided minds aren’t satisfied with separating our sense of self from everything else in life and so we have subsequently assigned various word names, which need to be defined by more words to assure understanding, to every experience we have. If this wasn’t enough, we then invented even more abstract words to qualify all these polar this and that opposites we have created, as being pleasurable or painful and further yet, as desirable or undesirable, right or wrong, and good or bad. This is how the tower of Babel was built that we need to topple.

5. The compelling illusion of time, with a regular sequence of the future coming to the present and then going to the past, is what takes valuable time away from actually experiencing the experience that is going on in the present moment, which has already gone before I can complete this sentence. The fact that we normally spend over 70% of our time thinking about everything other than what we are doing or experiencing, helps explain our failures in not even managing the manageable problems that abound, let alone understand complex problems well enough to see how we have disguised the experience way beyond any hope of meaningful understanding of it, with layers of abstract words that completely miss the experience that is long gone and now only an even more abstract, faded memory.

6. Complex problems like school violence, substance abuse, human trafficking, unemployment, civil unrest, ideological or territorial wars, suicide, child abuse, business failures, economic strife, mental illness, youth marginalization, the federal deficit and even PTSD, are impossible to solve so long as we are held hostage by our terrible twins of self-consciousness and abstract language. Thinking about this will only make it worse.

7. Only mindfulness, focusing on experience of whatever is going on now, can break the futile vicious circle to nowhere in getting somewhere in our pursuit of happiness. When you experience horrific violence, the utter joy of childbirth, or the uncertainty of a life-threatening experience, you don’t need a name for it. The common sense that it is registers directly on the brain.

8. What makes sense to some folks is that the absence of unhappiness translates to happiness. The negative driver of unhappiness is the inner hell stress package of fears of predetermined future events with negative consequences and the overwhelming sense of helplessness and hopelessness, in not being able to control things that should be controllable. On the other hand, he positive driver of happiness is the mysterious force of empathy, as the profound experience of a loving, close connection with others and the rest of life that we only imagine we are separated from.

Happiness inhibitors and Facilitators

Here is a quick summary of the leaning behaviors that seem to either inhibit and limit, or facilitate and increase happiness:

Inhibitors vs. Facilitators
Selective interests vs. Expanding interests
Worrying about too many negative memories vs. Enjoying man positive memories
Having an external locus of control vs. Having an internal locus of control
Sensing disconnectedness vs. Sensing connectedness
Feeling hopeless vs.Having hope
Being cynical and negative vs. Being optimistic and positive
Practicing exclusion vs. Practicing inclusion
Not resolving conflicts vs. Resolving conflicts
Allowing mind wandering in the past and future vs. Being mindfulness of the present moment
Using defensive communication vs. Using supportive communication
Being self-centered and selfish vs. Practicing selflessness
Being trapped in dualistic thinking vs. Being free with hole-brained thinking
Trying to control situations vs. Managing reactions to situations.
Quitting after setbacks vs. Being resilient and persevering
Using passive-aggressive approaches vs. Using assertive approaches
Competing to defeat others vs. Cooperating for all to win.
Being in a hurry vs. Savoring the moment
Harboring resentments Being forgiving
Slipping towards over-indulgence vs. Striving for temperance
Personalizing failures vs. Personalizing successes
Taking things for granted and being ungrateful vs. Expressing appreciation and gratitude
Frowning vs. Smiling
Hoarding vs. Sharing
Being close-mindedness vs. Being open-mindedness
Being intolerant vs. Being tolerant
Giving into impatience vs. Remaining patient
Wanting more vs. Appreciating what you have
Hiding insecurities and vulnerabilities vs. Admitting insecurities and vulnerabilities
Letting time manage you vs. Managing your time
Resisting change vs. Embracing change
Being inflexible and unadapting vs. Being flexible and adaptable
Seeking information vs. Seeking knowledge and wisdom
Hating vs. Loving
Engaging in unvirtuous behavior vs. Practicing virtuous behavior
Working in a meaningless job vs. Doing meaningful work
Having work-life imbalance vs. Maintaining work-life balance
Having narrow older interests vs. Having a variety of new interests
Focusing on short range benefits vs. Focusing on sustaining long range goals
Allowing your ego to dominate things vs. Using humility to keep your ego in check

None of this will make any sense until you start noticing why problems exist in the first place. This is to frustrate our problem-solving skills to no end, so as to point us toward a possible solution in taking the time and making the effort to understand the experience of the problem itself, apart from any name by which we try to study it. If this sinks in, it is a good sign that we are making progress. Another important milestone of progress is our semi-conscious participation in an earlier childhood game we enjoyed playing, called hide-and-seek. Like the opening poem hinted, maybe we have hidden happiness, by dismissing ordinary interesting experiences before experiencing them, just to increase the happy surprise of finding it again. Or maybe practicing too many of the left column behaviors or too little of those on the right side, in the above table.

Author's Bio: 

William Cottringer, Ph.D. is retired Executive Vice President of Puget Sound Security in Bellevue, WA, but still teaches criminal justice classes and practices business success coaching and sport psychology. He is also on the Board of Directors of the Because Organization, an intervention program in human trafficking. Bill is author of several business and self-development books, including, Re-Braining for 2000 (MJR Publishing); The Prosperity Zone (Authorlink Press); You Can Have Your Cheese & Eat It Too (Executive Excellence); The Bow-Wow Secrets (Wisdom Tree); Do What Matters Most and “P” Point Management (Atlantic Book Publishers); Reality Repair (Global Vision Press), Reality Repair Rx (Publish America); Critical Thinking (Authorsden); Thoughts on Happiness, Pearls of Wisdom: A Dog’s Tale (Covenant Books, Inc.). Coming soon: A Cliché a day will keep the Vet Away and Christian Psychology for Everyday Use (Covenant Books, Inc.). Bill can be reached for comments or questions at (206)-914-1863 or