Is this never-ending struggle to be happy a good thing? Are we, as humans, with a full range of emotions, supposed to find a happiness plateau and live there forever?
Happy New Year! Happy birthday! The pursuit of happiness. Don’t worry, be happy. And they lived happily ever after.
There is considerable pressure put on us to be happy. Most of us have been fed the lines; the American dream will lead to happiness, finding love will lead to happiness, and work-life balance will make you happy. There are thousands of blogs about what will make you happy; spoiler alert, this isn’t one of them.
Is this never-ending struggle to be happy a good thing? Are we, as humans, with a full range of emotions, supposed to find a happiness plateau and live there forever? What is happiness, and why do we think we can achieve it with money, cars, houses, or other expensive treats?
Let’s look at happiness for a moment, what we’re actually striving for, what works, what doesn’t, and should we even bother.
What is Happiness
Much like the never-ending search for a soulmate, but not having a definition of the soul, we are endowed with the right to pursue happiness, but most of us have no idea what happiness is.
According to the ancient Greek Philosopher and polymath Aristotle, happiness consists of achieving over a lifetime all the goods - health, wealth, knowledge, friends, love, etc. These all lead to the perfection of human nature and the enrichment of human life.
He also tells us that to achieve this, we have to make choices, which will be difficult, but if you make the right choices, you’ll be happy. Aristotle counsels that the lesser good, immediate gratification, and pleasure are more tempting; however, the greater good is painful and requires sacrifice but will lead to true happiness.
So, if you follow Aristotle’s formula, you need to make choices with an eye to the future. You need to look at the ultimate goal of life and not get caught up in the momentary pleasures. But, to most of us, putting off happiness seems crazy, especially when you have social media telling you, Yolo, dude, live for the now!
Hard to keep an eye on the future when you’re being Yolo’d constantly. So, will ignoring the immediate gratifications and living for the future make you happy? Maybe, for a short time. Until you start thinking about the future and how short life is, all bets are off.
What You Think Makes You Happy Doesn’t
We’ve been told that certain things will make us happy, but do they? Fat salaries, huge corner offices, an expense account, are all supposed to be happiness-bringing things, but they’re really not. Here are a few things that are supposed to be great for happiness, but surprisingly, they aren’t.
Ignoring negative emotions
Rid yourself of negative thoughts, reactions, and emotions; that’s a quick way to be happy. Ignore or repress all that negative energy and only allow good energy in. Turns out that’s just crap.
We’ve been fed that the way to a happy, fulfilled life means you’re happy all the time, with no negative thoughts, just yum, yum, yum all the time. Turns out that suppressing negative emotions is a barrier to good health. Bottling up negative emotions can lead to aggression, anger, and fits of rage. This behavior then leads to fewer social contacts and time alone. On top of that, repressing negative emotions can lead to serious health risks.
Living in a Big City
Everyone wants to live in the city that never sleeps. There’s always something to do or somewhere to be. How can that NOT be fun?
The thing with cities is there is pressure to do all the things all the time. This gets overwhelming and leads to people being depressed and feeling guilty if they don’t want to do all the things all the time. On top of that, cities are crowded and dirty, which causes stress and anxiety. Cities are also hubs for crime, which adds to the worry and fear of life. None of that sounds like a foundation for happiness.
Endless Free Time
Work-life balance has become a big deal since the advent of the pandemic. We need, and it is healthy to demand, a good work-life balance. But the problem arises when we think that a ton of free time is needed, sending the balance from all work to all play. That’s fun, right?
According to a 2021 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, well-being does increase in correlation with free time. But only to a certain degree. The well-being benefits level off at two hours and starts to decline at five hours per day. After this window, we begin to feel useless and lacking reason or purpose, which leads to depression and anxiety. So, all the free time in the world may seem like a one-way ticket to Happyland, but it’s not.
Many of us were raised on the idea that you work hard, get a high-paying job, then the classy promotion and the big raise, the house, the car, the spouse, and then you say hello happily ever after. Not so much.
According to experts, all that stuff will make you happy for a little while. The notion that achieving all the right things will lead to long-term happiness is termed an arrival fallacy. This fallacy keys on the idea that once we achieve ( the desired thing) and have all the (desired want), we have eternal happiness. So, you end up constantly chasing something ill-defined and impossible. The more you have, the more you want, so that plateau of happiness becomes, if I can just get, or once I have this … and long-term happiness is never achieved.
All of these, along with buying expensive, fancy things, going on expensive vacations, and whatever else is on the this will make you happy list, do bring some measure of happiness, but only for a short time. This leaves people still searching and struggling for that happily ever after.
We’re Not Supposed to be Happy 24/7
For those who are doggedly in the pursuit of happiness, take a breath and understand this, we, human beings, are not supposed to be happy all the time. We’re not built that way. We have a vast range of emotions, and we already know that dodging the negative ones won’t make us happy.
If you think about it, being happy all the time is dangerous. There are some cases when being happy is not appropriate. We can name the obvious, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a car accident, or your house burning down. Those are not happiness-inducing situations. Yes, you can look for the silver lining, but suppressing the anger, disappointment, confusion, or rage just bottles up your emotions, and they will out eventually. And when they do show themselves, they will be superpowered from being bottled up for so long, and then they will be hell to deal with.
You must allow for the negative to appreciate the positive. Also, if you’re trying to achieve a permanent level of happiness without ingesting copious amounts of drugs, you’re setting yourself up for failure. You will feel that failure; try to avoid it by trying something else to make you happy, and that is a dangerous cycle to get on.
We have this incredible range of emotions and ways to express them; they need to be expressed, recognized and dealt with. That is easy if you’re not telling yourself I need to be happy 24/7. That’s just an unrealistic goal that you’ll never achieve.
Social Media Incites Unhappiness
For all the good that social media has given us, it is, at its core, a harmful animal.
Think of yourself scrolling social media; all your friends are posting about vacations and dates, adventures, and they are all happy, happy, happy, seemingly 24/7. Do you think how cool for them? Or do you feel a pang of jealousy? Do you feel inferior because you’re not posting joy all the time? This makes you doubt yourself, despise your life and start looking for something that can never be achieved, endless happiness, which then makes you feel like a failure, and you’re trapped in a cycle.
Social media is not reality, and, frankly, it ain’t very social either. That’s not the place to look for happiness.
So, what’s to be done?
Take in the Moments
The truth is happiness isn’t a coat of paint you cover your life with, nor is it a set-it-and-forget-it type of situation. The idea that if you complete a checklist of activities or accomplishments, endless happiness will arrive is ridiculous. We are not meant to be, nor can we be, happy all the time.
No, it’s not. It’s quite wonderful. If we were happy all the time, we wouldn’t know the great feeling of coming back from a setback. We wouldn’t know the depths of our emotions; we’d be grinning drones mumbling I’m happy all the time. To be human, to have empathy, sympathy, and love, we need to engage our entire emotional spectrum.
The thing to do is recognize and appreciate when happiness comes along. Be in the moment and know you’re happy right now, which is good. The trouble arises when we get happy for a moment and immediately think, how do I make this last forever? Then you start looking to the future, looking to the things you think are needed to make you happy; all the while, you’re ignoring the happiness that’s right in your hands.
We all want to be happy; the problem arises when we think we’re entitled to be happy all the time and that if we follow the steps, and do the right things, then happiness will be with us forever and ever.
We also make the mistake of looking at those who feel unhappy or have negative emotions as being wrong somehow. They aren’t. Embracing your emotional spectrum is healthy, as opposed to repressing negative emotions. Here too, there are cautions. Don’t dwell on the negative. Allow it to have its moment and then move on. If you find you cannot move forward and you’re stuck in the negative, you may be experiencing depression, in which case, get some help.
You can call anytime you have questions about depression or substance use disorders. Phone Number: 1-(800)-662-HELP (4357). MentalHealth.gov: This website provides information about mental health disorders and available treatments.
Stop killing yourself in pursuit of happily ever after; that’s not supposed to be how we live. Start embracing happy in this moment. Recognize, celebrate and appreciate the moments of happiness. Once you start recognizing them and giving them attention, you’ll find that the moments are more frequent and begin to last longer. This is because those moments have always been there; you just haven’t recognized them.
So, worry, angst, curse, be disappointed, and accept that is part of being human, and just because you experience those emotions doesn’t mean you can’t be happy too. Be human. Be happy in the moment.