There is a phenomenon in our culture that happiness is the goal of all things. The question this article poses is – is happiness the Ultimate Goal?
Whether we look at the self-esteem centered culture of “everyone deserves a trophy,” on the low end of things, or “equality for all” on the highest side of things, we are obviously focused on happiness. This may take the shape of body acceptance, tolerance, and compassion.
What some people envision as happiness is what the writer Jed McKenna calls “happiness without any suffering” or HWAS. In other words, pure, unadulterated happiness.
However, this brings us upon a very important distinction that perhaps is the failure of the English language or maybe we aren’t thinking well enough. This distinction is that of happiness and pleasure. For many, that would be ideal, wouldn’t it? Pure pleasure and no suffering. No pain.
Unfortunately, there seems to be no possible way to have pain without pleasure. This isn’t some dictum, axiom, or motivational chant that there is no “pain without gain.” All pleasure has a price, and that is pain. Sometimes, it comes afterwards in the form of drug withdraws or a hangover. Other times, it precedes the pain, like living in near-poverty for years as you build your business, affording yourself few pleasures, and then living in pleasure with your hard-earned fortune. And other times, it may come along with the pain, like the rush of lifting weights and the endorphins that follow.
Therefore, we immediately come upon a new question. Is pleasure without any suffering, or PWAS, our ultimate goal? If so, it seems like an impossible goal, because the existence of pleasure without suffering seems to be impossible.
But maybe there is another distinction there. Can you have pain without suffering? This is the next question if we agree that PWAP, pleasure without any pain, is impossible. And by extension, we also need to ask ourselves, “can there be pleasure without any suffering?”
In order to define “suffering,” perhaps the Buddhists are our best bet. In the Buddhist scriptures, the Pali canon, it is unequivocally stated by the Buddha that suffering, or dukkha is the only real subject of Buddhism (or as it was called in his day, the dhamma-vinaya)
“Both formerly & now, it is only dukkha that I describe, and the cessation of dukkha.” – SamyuttaNikaya 22.8
Many know of Buddhism’s first noble truth, that “all of life is suffering.” However, translating dukkha as suffering might be a bit inaccurate. The Buddhist monk and scholar Thanissaro Bhikkhu has, in my opinion, the most accurate translation of dukkha – stress.
Pain Without Stress
Instead of the vague but melodramatic connotation that comes with “suffering,” we now have the much more practical and everyday word of stress.
We know that well. It plagues us in reflection and contemplation of the future. Wasted days, broken relationships (or ones that never happened but we wish would), that time we bombed that presentation and looked like an idiot in front of everyone. Or the fear of all of that happening.
Strangely enough, if you think about it, there doesn’t seem to be stress about the present moment. Yes, we can be stressed in the present moment, but the stress is about something that has happened or will happen. A memory that haunts us or a prediction, like a date that we’re afraid of messing up.
Returning to then to the definition of happiness being having pleasure and/or pain (and perhaps neutrality?) without stress, we would need to eliminate stress completely. This may sound strange that you could have pain without stress, but it is what the Buddha claimed to have attained with Nirvana.
It isn’t too hard to imagine on a micro-scale, either. Let’s say you were doing something you were good at – it could be drawing, boxing, writing, or any other pursuit – and you made a mistake. You caught a quick jab to the nose, or needed to erase a bad line. Being so completely in control of your art, it probably wouldn’t affect you too much. Nothing to stress about. The existential equivalent of a mosquito bite.
A mosquito bite, yeah. There’s a great example of something that is painful but not really stressful (unless you fear catching malaria? Then you really have some mental issues there).
Stress also extends to pleasure, and perhaps it is the most insidious. It’s one thing to be in pain and dream of pleasure, but it’s a special kind of hell to be in pleasure, to be in the arms of someone you love or at the height of an orgasm, and to then fear…to know…that it will eventually fade. To experience pleasure and stress simultaneously.
A mantra of “enjoy the present moment” might inspire you to calmly brush away anxiety of the future and regret of the past, but an Instagram post or some fortune-cookie reminder only lasts for so long. Then, another thought comes to you and the stress returns, a shadow that follows you day and night.
In order to enjoy the inevitable cascade of pleasure and pain, but without the tainted drudge of stress, one needs to have an ever-present antidote to stress that wipes it away the moment it crops up. Or even better, to have this stress never even surface. To banish it forever from our lives.
If that were achieved, then the most luxurious pleasures would be enjoyed to their fullest before their disappearance, without any fear of that moment of dissolution. And even the most hellish pains would be seen as a mosquito bite that will in time dissipate.
And if you haven’t noticed, the exact thing that makes motivation and the temporary cures to our stress, time, is also the fire that burns all stress away. In time, all things fade.
Eventually, stress will end. The only question is, can you come to a point where it is forever banished?
Life Without Stress
Perhaps. It is spoken of by Buddha and many who came after him as Nirvana. It was spoken by Jesus as the Kingdom of Heaven and by the mystics that followed him as Union with the Godhead. The Hindus talk of Moksha. I even have a friend who personally attests to this State as well.
Unfortunately, until it is Realized (if it can be Realized), you have to go off of intuition, faith, or any other method of determining your confidence in something happening. But if we take the earlier observations and apply them to this situation, it might not seem so mystical or complicated.
At any point in your life, has any pain or pleasure continued without cessation whatsoever? Okay, the taste of a food or the sting of a bumped toe – those are easy to say “no, they faded” to. But what about the love of a spouse, a parent, or a child. You might be tempted to say “well, that’s unconditional. At no point have I ever not loved my child! How dare you suggest such a thing!”
But is that true? In your deepest, most strongly held emotions or beliefs, was there ever a moment where they did not fade from awareness, even for a micro-second? If you can still say “no” to that, I’m very impressed. You managed to, for all of infinity, constantly hold onto that emotion.
Infinity? What am I talking about now?
Well, here’s the real douchebag intellectual move. For something to be unconditional, like your love of family, it has to have been always present. Only that which has never been born cannot die.
That means before you had your family, before you were even born, that love had to have been there. That is the definition of infinity, philosophically – always has been, is, and always will be. This is similar to some theological descriptions of God; that he exists outside of space and time and always has been.
So, unless you can demonstrate that any pleasure or pain, any feeling or emotions, or any thought of yours has existed for all of time, then it is clear and strong inference that all pleasure, pain, feeling, and emotion will end. It is inevitable. That includes stress.
Thus, the highest happiness, the experience of pleasure and pain without stress, is Nirvana, or cessation (nirodha), as the Buddha also called it.
But here is the last piece of the puzzle – how can I demonstrate that it is unconditional? That this “state” always has been, is, and always will be. How do we know that True Happiness, the experience of pleasure and pain without stress, is eternal, especially when that the other part of True Happiness, the experiencing part, will eventually end when we die?
Unfortunately, that is where conversation becomes muddled with mysticism. Nothing quite clear enough to survive hyper-skepticism can pass beyond this point.
I can tell you that True Happiness is simply the uncovering of Truth, which is like a diamond that has always been there, but this is nothing more than poetry.
I could argue a bit more logically that Truth must be necessity exist, even if it is the negation of all other things, like so: if it is not forever, it is False. If all known things are known to perish, all known things are False. The only True thing, then, is no-thing. But, some will see that as a contradiction; the wiser among you will recognize it as a paradox (a completely different thing). Even then, it cannot be sold to anyone who doesn’t want it.
However, it should be abundantly clear by now that if True Happiness is your goal, then it must by necessity be a happiness that is without stress, or else it is not the Highest Happiness.
The Ultimate Goal
But is True Happiness, the Highest Happiness, or whatever you want to call it the Ultimate Goal?
Yes. Because if you take any goal of yours, whether it be to leave a legacy, to leave the world better than you found it, to solve some previously impossible theorem, or to simply enjoy life to the fullest, you will find that all of these goals are motivated in some way by an “ahh” moment or fulfillment – you cannot have an emotionless goal. Logic and reason are glues, but not motivators in and of themselves.
If there is an emotional pay-off in the end, then the Highest Goal is one that has the most fulfilling end.
And I cannot see how anyone could imagine an end more Ultimate than the end of stress, considering it is that stress that motivates us. We move in order to unburden ourselves. We feel an urged to fulfill whatever goal it is we have, precisely because if we don’t, we will feel that stress. Otherwise, what would motivate us to do it?
To have a solution is to have a problem.
Funnily enough, it is perhaps the Ultimate Irony then that the desire to solve our problem is quite literally our problem.
Editor’s Note: Thanks to Hector for providing this post. A recent college graduate who majored in Philosophy/Religion and English. And no, he doesn’t regret that at all. He sleeps on the ground in his closet-sized apartment and doesn’t care for opulent living, except for organic foods, designer clothes, traveling, and doing whatever he wants, whenever he wants…so, maybe he’s a bit extravagant. But at least he’s trying to master finance to sustain his lifestyle, especially with all that student loan debt. He would ask you to wish him luck, but given that he has no free will, he just hopes for a wink and a smile (preferably from a cute girl).
[Photo Credit: Unsplash]