Why the Search for Happiness Is Getting in the Way of Our Happiness
Happiness…an overused word and a much sought after state. We seem to be living in a society that is obsessed with the pursuit of happiness. There has been much emphasis on living a happy life, and many experts telling us how to achieve this state of happiness. There is a politically correct message out there that happiness is a choice, and that you can choose to be happy at any moment. I do not agree with this. As a therapist that has assisted people in many moments of their lives, I feel this push for happiness is actually harming us rather than helping us. There are moments when it is not appropriate to feel happy; we actually need to be sad or mad, frustrated or sorry.
I am concerned that this focus on happiness has created a sense of entitlement in our modern society. This has now even spread to our emotions, with happiness seen as the ultimate emotional achievement. Many seem to feel that this is their due, and if they are not feeling happy then somehow they are not getting what they want or should have. Others feel as if they failed because they have not achieved the happiness that others have found. Either way, this perfectionistic approach to our feelings is not leading us to more life satisfaction – actually depression and anxiety are on the rise. This is especially true for our youth. No wonder we have so many young people struggling with these issues when they have been told they are entitled to happiness and that they are failing or “sick” if they have not achieved it.
So let’s try to understand happiness a bit better. What does it actually mean? Happiness is an adjective, a descriptive word that describes a feeling or a state of mind. Simply put happy is often defined as feeling delighted, pleased, or glad over a particular thing. Happy is characterized by pleasure, contentment and joy, as in feeling a happy mood or a happy frame of mind.
The origin of the word happy is Old English. The word happy did not emerge until the late 14th Century, so this concept of happiness is still relatively new in the big picture. It was first a phrase associated with “happ” an Old Norse word which mean one’s luck or chance. So when the word happy first emerged it was used to describe luck or fortune, not a word that described a state of pleasure and contentment.
So how did the word that began as a describer of luck become a word that now describes a superior and sought after emotion? The American constitution and the right to the “pursuit of happiness” may have something to do with it. The right to pursue your luck I guess! The problem with this is that it has always put people in a place of pursuit, rather than embracing and accepting the moments that they are in. If we are pursuing we often forget to pay attention to the moment we are in. We might even miss our lucky opportunities if we are too busy pursing happiness.
I think we need to remove the mythology associated with happiness. Happy is just an emotion. It is neither superior, nor is it a state of pure joy and satisfaction. It is not a god given right, nor is it something bestowed upon the people through a political document. It is just a feeling that comes and goes. Rather than seeking and pursuing happiness, maybe we should just allow ourselves to feel gratitude and joy in the moments we are in. Maybe we should allow ourselves to feel sad when we are meant to and angry when we are meant to. Maybe the real road to happiness comes in letting go of the pursuit and embracing the moment.
Do we really want to feel happy all the time? Is every moment a choice to feel happy? I don’t think so. In fact I think that would create an inauthentic and boring world. We need all of our emotions. They all have purpose, and they are all there to assist us in moving forward and growing in life. It is time for our society to get over our fear of difficult emotions and pain, and learn to accept all of our emotions (not just the pleasant ones). Pain, and sadness and anger come and go as well, just like happiness. So we can choose to bring purpose to pain, but we are going to miss the lesson if we only focus on happiness as the ultimate determiner of a satisfied life.
So how do we dig into this life and create satisfaction? True contentment and joy may actually come from working through a challenge or transforming a difficult emotion. We are not meant to be happy at every moment because not every moment is happy. Emotions have their natural flow and maybe we should just let them come and go as there are meant to. The real world can be difficult and painful – our struggles with depression and anxiety may be caused by our pursuit of something that is not grounded in reality.
This obsession with happiness may actually be a symptom of a perfectionistic society aiming for the brightest and most shiny object out there. If we want substance and depth in our lives we may need to aim elsewhere for our satisfaction and joy. The MORE philosophy is a new way of approaching satisfaction. Whatever the situation we can transform it through finding movement, grasping the opportunities and paying attention to our luck and the reality checks. We find joy in the real moments in a real life, not when pursuing a shiny ideal of emotional achievement. Our pursuit of happiness may actually be keeping us away from our moments of joy.