At some point in life—probably when we’re just old enough to understand the concept of goals and achieving them—we’re taught that happiness is something to strive for. And that it’s tied up in the milestones of life—getting that promotion, making a lot of money, graduating from school, getting married, you get the picture.

The problem is, this notion of happiness becomes a constant chase and we’re always moving the target, says human behavior expert Patrick Wanis, PhD. “We place our happiness somewhere off in the future and therefore we’re never able to enjoy where we are now because we’re always thinking we’re only going to be happy when we get to be, do, or have something.”

We Don’t Know What Makes Us Happy

Since money worries make us stressed, we assume more money might be the key to happiness. But, we’re wrong. Research shows that just enough money to get us a little above the poverty line does increase happiness, but beyond that, it has no correlation to happiness, says Richmond, Virginia-based therapist Susan J. Buniva, MSW, LCSW.

“It is an illusion that external events or circumstances like wealth or marriage will create happiness,” she says. “When we look outside ourselves for happiness, we no longer have agency over our own happiness and count on others to make us happy or we depend on things to fill us up,” Buniva says.

We Might Not Even Know What Happiness Is

The other problem is that the pursuit of happiness is also often based on the idea that happiness means joyfulness and excitement, says Ontario, Canada-based clinical psychologist Jennifer Barbera, PhD. But humans aren’t designed to stay perpetually excited or joyful. “If one is focused on the pursuit of happiness, even if happiness is momentarily achieved, what is one to do when these feelings wax and wane? “This can become a trap because a person who sets a strong intention to strive for happiness may then feel disappointed and less happy when they run into the reality that joy and excitement cannot last indefinitely,” Dr. Barbera says.

Happiness Is An Elusive Goal

When happiness is seen as somewhere off in the future, it’s always out of your grasp, Dr. Wanis says. “If you’re not able to be in the present moment, you’re actually avoiding experiencing what’s happening right now, which is not always going to be joy, happiness, or pleasure. It can be pain; it can be sadness; it can be loss. It can be disappointment. We end up repressing, denying, or distracting ourselves from these feelings so we can keep focusing on this elusive goal,” Dr. Wanis says.

“Like all feelings, happiness is transient,” Buniva says. “We cannot grasp at it without it becoming more elusive or creating a fragile false and shallow kind of happiness that will not sustain us,” she says. Feelings associated with happiness arise more organically when we aren’t trying to force it, but instead, can compassionately embrace all feelings that arise, so that all the focus isn’t on happiness, Buniva says. “Accepting other feelings, paradoxically, allows them to pass more quickly, and leaves room for happiness and contentment,” Buniva says. “When we choose to repress or reject some feelings, they prevent us from having an integrated and authentic response to the world, both internally and externally,” Buniva says.

The human experience involves a broad spectrum of emotions—from deep pain to deep joy and everything in between, Dr. Wanis says. “We don’t even know what joy is because we’re constantly trying to repress every other emotion. The problem is, we feel that we’ve got to be on this constant high. And so therefore we’re just being fake most of the time,” he says.

We Pay A Price For Chasing Happiness

If we’re not reaching those milestones that we think are tied to happiness, like success and wealth and marriage, we feel a sense of disappointment, Wanis says. We not only become disappointed, we become distant. Maybe you start to criticize yourself, maybe you start to feel guilty for not feeling happy that you’ve gotten this ‘thing’. “People become disillusioned and then start experiencing inner emptiness. And the inner emptiness is the result of pursuing goals rather than actually doing things that are meaningful to you. The pleasure, the joy, the satisfaction has to come from doing what you’re doing, being what you’re being, having what you’re having, not just thinking it’s always tomorrow,” Wanis says.

When people focus on the pursuit of happiness, aside from assuming that happiness is the natural desired state of humans, people also tend to then assume that if they are not happy, then they are defective in some way, Dr. Barbera says. “These feelings of inadequacy can then lead to unhappiness, which further fuels perceptions of inadequacy. This becomes a cycle that can be difficult to break,” she says.

Unrealistic pursuits of happiness as a goal can also lead to a range of mental health issues. “In particular, pursuits of happiness that go unsatisfied can fuel a person’s inner critic, which can increase depression and anxiety. Feelings of disappointment can also increase feelings of inadequacy and low mood, which are precursors to depression,” Dr. Barbera says.

How To Re-image Happiness

“Genuine happiness comes from having done the hard work of going inside ourselves with the curiosity and compassion that allows us to develop self-acceptance and genuine relationships with others,” Buniva says.

It’s also correlated to a number of things such as cultivating gratitude, embracing all feelings that arise with curiosity and compassion, developing the capacity to create a meaningful narrative of our life, and developing enough intimacy with ourselves that we are capable of engaging in relationships with others, Buniva says.

Getting to a place where happiness becomes a state of being rather than a future goal takes some practice.

  1. Live in alignment with your values. What are the standards, principles, and things that are truly meaningful the life? What are the things that give you a sense of significance, a sense of purpose? What motivates you? What are the things that feed your passion? “If you’re living your passion, if you’re living your purpose, if you’re living in alignment with your values, then already you have a sense of satisfaction, a sense of joy, a sense of yes,” Dr. Wanis says.
  2. Try to be completely engaged in something you enjoy. Whether it’s riding a bicycle, painting, creating, or writing, when you’re doing something you enjoy, a state of flow occurs naturally, Dr. Wanis says. “The reason you have this extraordinary almost euphoric response is because you stop thinking about yourself. You lose the concept of self and become fully absorbed in what you’re doing. That alone is an example of mindfulness or living in the present moment where all of your senses are engaged in what you’re doing.”
  3. Look for a sense of significance. In what way are you making a difference? How are you connected to your community? What role are you playing? “Even if it’s listening to a friend or helping someone laugh, that’s what gives us greater meaning in life,” Dr. Wanis says. “I believe that our greatest sense of satisfaction comes from knowing that we’re engaging in something that’s significant, something that’s making a difference to other people’s lives.”

The hunt for happiness doesn’t need to involve chasing after something; it’s more about seeing what’s already here and learning to appreciate by trying these kinds of mindfulness strategies.

Article Sources
Last Updated: Jun 17, 2020