Today is the International Day of Happiness, a day to focus on being happy. Seems like a helpful and beneficial goal. Be positive! Be happier! What could go wrong?
Not to be negative, but here’s what I’m thinking. The pursuit of happiness is ruining our lives.
Let me explain.
We are setting ourselves up to fail
You see, happiness is a feeling, one of many. Happiness, like all feelings, come and go depending on what is happening in our lives right now. For instance, you could be lying on a beach relaxing in the sunshine and notice how happy you feel and then suddenly a loud family sits down next to you, or you can smell cigarette smoke, or the weather suddenly changes—how do you feel now? Maybe annoyed, frustrated, disappointed? And then something else happens and you feel differently again. Happiness is fleeting, and if we have the expectation or the goal to ‘be happy’ and ‘stay happy’, we will be constantly disappointed, and even worse, feel like failures.
All of our emotions deserve our attention
Life is about change and challenges and feeling a full range of emotions—some of them experienced as pleasant and some unpleasant, but all serving a useful function. Emotions like sadness, anger and guilt are often thought of as bad, but they, like all emotions have value. All of our emotions communicate to us and others, and motivate us to action. It is our responses to emotions that may be negative or unhelpful, not the emotions themselves. If we constantly try to shove them down, push them away, or judge them as bad or unacceptable, we are missing important information. Wouldn’t it be a far more helpful and healthy pursuit to accept all our feelings as they come, identify the function of our emotions, and then learn to respond effectively?
You can still be content even if you’re not happy
Maybe, it’s a question of semantics. When we say we want to be happy, perhaps what we really mean is that we would like to be content and satisfied with our lives overall. A state of contentment or satisfaction is a far more realistic pursuit. See, although happiness is a pleasant state to be in, it’s not a goal you can reach or a final destination. You can’t stay happy. And if you try to force it, it’s not really that satisfying is it? That’s because it doesn’t feel genuine. But we can be content even if we’re not happy right now. Confused? It’s like when you still love someone even when you’re angry with them. Love is more stable like contentment, because we see and respond to the whole picture, not just the moment. The International Day of Contentment. Has a certain ring to it!
The things that give us meaning and purpose don’t always make us happy
Perhaps it would be more helpful to focus on pursuing what makes life worth living. What gives us the most satisfaction in our lives? If you look at the research, our sense of belonging and having meaningful bonds with others are at the top of the list. If that’s true, then how does that fit with the pursuit of happiness? Think about your significant relationships—your partner, mother, father, children, close friends and/or colleagues may come to mind. Choose one to focus on and ask yourself this—in your relationship with this person, have you only experienced happiness? Not likely.
Any meaningful pursuit, whether it be an important relationship, your education, your career or any personal challenge or interest, they all come with a mixed bag of emotions. If you have children, you know that one of the most common responses to the birth of your child is joy followed closely by anxiety, fear, guilt, frustration, disappointment…you name it! And it never ends! Why do most of us choose to have children? Is it because they always make us happy? Nope. It’s because they add meaning to our lives, because we value the bond with our children, and because these bonds add to our sense of contentment and satisfaction with our lives as a whole.
So on this day—The International Day of Happiness spread joy, be grateful, focus some of your attention on what makes you happy, and practice being mindful of your happy moments. Just remember that you are not supposed to feel happy all of the time and that your mental health and well-being depends upon your ability to be accepting of all your emotions, not just the pleasant ones.