I’ve wanted to understand happiness. Doesn’t everyone, to some degree? If you understand what happiness is, you can understand how to be happy, right? It’s for that reason that I’ve read books, watched documentaries, and listened to expert researchers on the subject, and I’m interested more than ever, now that I live in one of the allegedly happiest countries in the world.
One of my favorites books on the topic is Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert, in which he makes it crystal clear that not only are people pretty bad at making themselves happy, they’re terrible predictors of what will or won’t affect their happiness.
My favorite chapter in the book included a reference to a study in which parents of young children reported their levels of happiness throughout the day. It turned out they were most happy when away from their children — despite having listed parenthood as one of their top contributors to happiness.
As a parent myself, I empathize with this all too well, and I can promise that it is not a contradiction. It simply highlights the trouble we have in our culture with pinning down the concept of happiness.
Does wanting to be happy make you less of it?
Over the years, some of the seemingly best advice I’ve read about happiness is that chasing it won’t lead you there. As in, the harder you work to identify why you’re not happy, the more distance you put between yourself and actual happiness.
For a while, that made sense to me. If I ever expected that wisdom to somehow translate to greater happiness, though, I was setting myself up for disappointment.
Now, I’m not saying it’s not sage advice. There are multiple ways to interpret it, however, and they aren’t all equally valid or valuable.
For me, the main problem is that this idea — the idea of happiness coming to those who don’t seek it — still seems to “sell” happiness as a thing to be achieved. In other words, your next question becomes, “If I need to stop seeking happiness in order to be happy, how do I do that?”
That’s called chasing your tail, plain and simple.
What should we focus on instead?
I believe that in order to increase our overall happiness, satisfaction, and contentment in life, we need to understand that happiness isn’t best defined as a state of being. It’s not a result. It’s not an achievement. It’s not a place you can get to, much less stay in.
We need to get past these foolish questions of “Are you happy?” or “Am I happy?”
“Are you happy” is probably the second-worst question I hear people ask each other on a regular basis, right behind “What do you do?” It would be a lot more beneficial and practical, in my opinion, to ask ourselves “what could I do right now in order to experience happiness?”
Maybe it’s binging on ice cream — though, more likely, saying no to binging on ice cream will make you feel just as happy.
Happiness is an experience. In an ideal world, we would all have that experience on a very frequent and regular basis. A feeling of joy. A sense that things are alright. A deep, inner gratitude. Those things constitute happiness, but there isn’t — and can’t be — any permanence to them.
The Spanish language can handle this sort of topic with much more nuance. It uses separate words, “soy” and “estoy,” to describe what you are depending on whether it’s now, or always.
Soy means “I am [permanently].” Soy de estados unidos means “I am from the United States,” because that isn’t something I can ever change.
Estoy, on the other hand, means “I am [for now].” Estoy feliz means “I am happy,” because it’s a passing moment.
Being sad is what makes being happy feel so good.
None of us should expect to be happy all of the time. If that were possible, it would render happiness totally without meaning. We can only value something by comparison, so without pain, sadness, or at least neutral emotions, we’d have no frame of reference for what it means to feel “happy.”
Finally, we should only ever be interested in happiness right now, and I’ll give you three reasons why.
1. We’re terrible at guessing what will make us happy in the future, whether money, fame, relationships, or any other object of desire. You might think you know, but available research will prove you very wrong (again, I would point you to Gilbert’s book).
2. “The future” is not a real time and place. It does not exist, as far as any of us know. It is an illusion. A projection. A concept. There is no point in trying to manage our emotions in such a hypothetical context.
3. To the extent that we do waste time worrying about “future” happiness, we’re missing out on the opportunity to check in with ourselves in the current moment, and be conscious of the satisfaction we actually can experience.
If “happiness right now” sounds like empty hedonism and pleasure-seeking to you, consider that it doesn’t have to be. It also doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t spend time considering the long-term consequences of your choices. Maybe you can’t plan your future happiness, but having the self-awareness to realize how your actions may affect yourself and others can bring you very real joy — in the here and now.
No one is happy all the time, and yet the vast majority of people do experience happy feelings very frequently. Let’s do our best to appreciate that, and stop setting ourselves up for failure by putting happiness on a pedestal.