The Pursuit of Happiness is Making Us Miserable

Why gratitude is a much more realistic goal.

What makes you happy?

 Chances are some tangible experiences come to mind: making money, eating pizza, practicing yoga, spending time with friends (or your cat).

And there’s no shortage of scientific studies claiming to have uncovered the secret to achieving happiness, whether it’s buried in our relationships, finding rewarding work, or mastering work-life balance.

For most of us happiness is a goal—one that is measured simply by the presence of “positive” emotions. (The joy that comes from spending time with people you love or the excitement of seeing an extra zero added to your paycheck). Most of us can also agree that this basic definition perpetuates the chase of a momentary response to events that are uncontrollably fleeting. Humans are extremely complex beings and we experience a multitude of emotions in response to our experiences each day, sometimes differing from minute to minute. Frankly, it’s impossible—and unnatural—to be happy all the time.

Yet, we’re still obsessed with happiness.

If we feel anything short of joy, our instinct is to diagnose ourselves in the throes of an existential crisis with a prescription of self-help books, meditation and travel plans to indulge our wanderlust until we find ourselves again in that comfortable space we have identified as “happiness.”

Since it is impossible to remain in this state at all times, it seems we are doing the exact opposite of what we all know to be true about effective goal setting: defining an unachievable goal that inevitably sets us up to fail. Putting happiness up on a pedestal fuels an endless cycle of disappointment and frustration. One that leaves a handful of ambiguous questions in its wake: What about the in-between moments? Are they, by this definition, failures? Should chasing this idea of “happiness” really be our ultimate goal? Is being “happy” in this sense truly the end-all-be-all measure of a life well-lived?

“It is a relatively recent phenomena to be obsessed with happiness. For thousands of years life was about survival,” said Dr. Wyatt Fisher, PhD, a licensed psychologist in private practice. “Only within the last century or so have people earned enough money where they could be concerned with higher order items such as happiness. However, focusing on happiness can create problems.”

Which we all realize at a basic level, but that doesn’t stop us from feeling inadequate when an emotion other than happiness is dominating our consciousness. When we’re pissed off, or frustrated, or bored, we instantly begin searching for a solution, because surely feeling anything other than “happy” signals a problem that must be addressed.

But as long as we continue to define—and seek out—this idea of happiness, we will continue to fall short of the contentment that we’re ultimately seeking.

The Dangers of the Endless Pursuit of Happiness

Some experts argue that it’s the constant quest for happiness that is the cause of our unhappiness. 

“The fact that we are chasing after happiness as the ideal state is exactly what causes us misery,” said Anjhula Mya Singh Bais, PhD, International Psychology. “Buddhism and many other schools of thought posit that human beings have both shadow and light sides—negative and positive, evil and good—and it all depends on what we focus on and give play to. We know sadness to understand joy; winter to appreciate spring. Every life has a rhythmic natural cycle. To try to be happy all the time whilst suppressing other natural aspects like fear, anger, or sadness is like living in the Northern Lights 24/7. How novel at first, but then it would be a bad idea. We should strive to accept our happiness with humility and our not-so-happy sides without defeat or despair. Both are essential and both are impermanent.”

That feeling of defeat that often accompanies unavoidable unpleasant emotions can inhibit our ability to work through the issues causing the emotional response.

“[Focusing on happiness] can create pressure and unrealistic expectations,” agreed Fisher. “For example, I was working with a couple who was going through their first crisis and the woman had an extremely difficult time working through it because of all the negativity it made her feel. In her mind, marriage was supposed to always be happy so this season they were in didn’t fit with her expectations, which made it harder for her to muster through it. Life is full of ups and downs and it’s essential to be authentic with how we really feel rather than continually put a positive spin on everything and deny our true emotions.”

Chasing Happiness Comes at the Cost of Authenticity

While we’re hardwired to avoid uncomfortable feelings, like pain and sadness, balance is authentic to the human experience—and that doesn’t fall short of emotion.

“People are crashing and burning. How can our true authentic side come out when we think we have to be one way or another 100 percent of the time?” said Bais. “At one point or another the veneer will crack. We have it backwards: we think we are unhappy because we have these ‘negative,’ less than palatable sides to us. Actually, when we welcome and accept negativity, looking it straight in the eye, ironically we become happier.”

That’s not to say that certain goals, that we tend to align with happiness, are also off the table. But it becomes imperative to differentiate between happiness and goals like “following your passions” or “practicing gratitude.”

“It is impossible to stay in a state of continual happiness. While this could be semantics, it is important to nuance this terminology when ascribing these emotional states as ideal or supreme,” said Shaun Wehle, Psy.D., HSPP, LCAC. “Suggesting happiness as the only end goal is misleading and loses the nuances of the human experience. This is not only a myth, but it is a falsehood that causes those sensitive to this criticism to feel as though they have failed or are failing when they are not ‘happy’ at times. Gratitude on the other hand is different; ‘Following your bliss’ is another nuanced take on this. That said, suggesting happiness is king can alienate individuals needing support for ‘non-happy’ emotional states, which are a natural part of the human experience.”

Realism: Finding The Balance

Perhaps then, the ultimate goal becomes striving to achieve that balance, which Celine Elis Alvarez, a psychotherapist in private practice at Inner Growth Therapy, defines as “realism.”

“When you use realism you are balancing optimism (positivity) with pessimism (negativity). It is helpful to use discernment so that you can be realistic about your life, keep yourself safe, but also take risks,” she said. “It is like being open to the possibility of this working or not working and being unattached to a result. It is all about showing up and not having an expectation of what the result will be. When we go to either end of the spectrum of positivity versus negativity we have a hard time. Either living in fear (negativity) or denial (positivity). It is important to balance these two.”

The Power of Negative Emotions to Facilitate Growth

“Yeah, I get it,” you’re thinking, while still running as fast as you can towards the positivity side of the spectrum. But let’s try to shift your perspective a little. Emotions we’ve dubbed “negative” are not only unavoidable and natural, but they are a necessary part of the human experience.

Depression—the king of “negative” emotional states—may actually play an important role in our survival. Paul Andrews, an evolutionary psychologist at McMaster University in Canada, recently suggested that depression may in fact serve an evolutionary purpose, defining it as “an adaptation for analyzing complex problems.” 

“In some circumstances, depression may be, in the arc of a life, yielding of insights and personal meaning,” reported Science of Us. “All of this is in no way meant to minimize the suffering that depression can cause—but to suggest the uses that it may serve.”

In this vein of thought, the bouquet of unpleasant symptoms that accompanies depression—inability to feel pleasure, rumination and increase in REM sleep—is an evolutionary design meant to “pull us away from the normal pursuits of life and focus us on understanding or solving the one underlying problem that triggered the depressive episode.”

What a different perspective this provides on what we’ve dubbed the opposite of happiness—a negative emotional state to be avoided at all costs.

Reframing “Negative” Emotions

It’s obvious there is a need for us to reframe these less-than-enjoyable emotional states. Of course, we’d all prefer to live a life characterized by excitement and joy. But learning to identify the important purpose of those less enjoyable emotions is key to achieving contentment, even during times not characterized by “happiness.”

“Is there a healthy dose of negativity? Well, what does that mean? Is there a healthy dose of reality that suggests there is a time to hate, tear, be silent, speak, etc.? Yes! Will this be uncomfortable? Yes! Will we always be happy? Absolutely not!” said Wehle. “We have to feel the discomfort and disappointment of circumstances to change them. Now, if we are in a continual rut of emotions, thoughts and behaviors, we also may want to find a way to break the negative cycle, so that we can experience life’s opportunities to love, embrace, laugh and dance.”

But it’s important to recognize those negative emotions for what they are, and use them as a catalyst to propel us forward. Something that’s extremely hard to do when the pursuit of happiness shadows them in a cloak of negative adjectives like “wrong” and “failure.”

“All emotions are messengers. Some, especially ‘negative’ ones, are trying to get in touch with you. These emotions carry important messages born out of an innate intuition or knowing experience, connecting the dots and an inner homeostasis that our bodies and minds try to maintain,” said Bais. “If you’re fearful of something, that’s not a negative thing that calls for hiding out or shutting down. It could very well be alerting you to something that you haven’t thought of before or urging you to examine core beliefs to find out deeper truths. Once you do that, you become that much more free and liberated; [a person] becomes less fearful, and in equal proportions, stronger. All is moving towards a higher good, if you’re secular, you can view it as every negativity, hurtful emotion, problem or obstacle has a lesson, experience, clue or gift wrapped up in it.”

How do we embrace the not-so-enjoyable emotions and allow them to help us grow? It is all about shifting our perspective.

“All we have to do is practice expanding our sense of being,” said Bais. “Nothing is inherently negative or positive; it’s our framing and perception of it that makes something that could actually be looked upon as neutral a negative. In every seed of ‘negativity’ lies a seed of potentiality of further negativity or positivity. Example: Feeling angry? You can channel that through spray painting or through fighting for human rights. Both have a basis in anger.”

Gratitude: The Difference Between Optimism and Happiness

It’s important to differentiate between happiness and optimism. After all, we may not always be in a state of happiness, but grounding our experience in optimism allows us to see those more difficult emotional states through a much different lens.

“It is helpful to cultivate an attitude of gratitude by keeping a daily ‘thankful’ journal,” said Fisher. “Optimism is a learned trait to look for the good and the more optimism we feel the better our mental and physical health tend to be.”

Bring grateful may strike many of us as an emotion dependent on being in a state of happiness—but expressing gratitude is not ignoring the spectrum of feelings we all experience at a given time or living in a blissful state.

“I would suggest that an even more important virtue [than happiness] is gratitude. Fostering gratitude can take many forms and can bring about happiness,” said Wehle. “It can be created and can be present as we weep and laugh, mourn and dance, love and hate. Gratitude is just being thankful; a readiness to show appreciation for, and to return, kindness. A very simple activity that can increase gratitude is a gratitude journal. This is an easily implemented activity that can shift our focus on the ‘good’ that is all around us and decrease over emphasis on the negative.”

Science has proven that one of the greatest contributing factors to overall happiness is how much gratitude we show. When put to the test, one experiment found that a noticeable difference can be experienced with as little as three expressions of gratitude each day. Fun fact: the person who experienced the biggest leap in happiness was the one who was the least happy at the onset. Which makes a pretty significant statement about the power of gratitude to reframe our perspective on our circumstances.

Make Happiness an Actionable Choice 

Instead of seeing happiness as an end goal, an emotional state of being, or the feeling of joy that one tends to associate with the mood “happy,” it’s time to redefine it in a way that places the power back in our own hands.

A 2015 Harvard study found that the correlation between happiness and occupation, income or wealth was far less than the correlation between happiness and how people feel about their occupation, income or wealth.

Happiness is a state of mind. It is a self awareness and a sense of gratitude. It is a choice we make, not a mood we are involuntarily thrust into and torn out of against our own will. This more nuanced definition may free us from the chains shackling us to the paralyzing goal of an eternal state of happiness, which ironically keeps us in the state of discontentment were trying to avoid.

 

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