I hear it over and over.
I JUST WANT TO BE HAPPY.
Well, of course you do. Who doesn’t? Regardless of what ailment my clients are seeking to alleviate, at the bottom of it all is this essential wish: H A P P I N E S S. How can I get there? What is it going to take? Will I ever have it? Am I destined to live without it? What’s the secret?
I’ll tell you. STOP! Happiness isn’t something you can obtain by targeting it as your main goal. In fact, if you want to be UN-happy, just keep trying to be happy. I’m guessing your experience has already made that clear.
Here’s why. It’s deceptively simple. If you’re reaching for happiness, that essentially means that you’re trying to get somewhere that you’re not already. The premise is that what you are currently experiencing is not good enough. If happiness is somewhere “out there,” the future presumably, then it isn’t now. So if happiness continues to be in the future, where the grass is always greener, then your present will always suck.
Happiness is what happens when you’re living a life that is consistent with your values. When you’re being the person you truly want to be, happiness just . . . happens. When you aren’t living your values, you aren’t generating the emotional conditions that evoke happiness in the first place. Before we go on, I think it’s important to discern what happiness is not.
Happiness ≠ Positivity
Happiness isn’t the same thing as being positive. There is a lot of self-help-y, “wellness” advice out there touting positivity. Be positive. Don’t think negatively. The Monty Python’s Life of Brian’s ending number, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” comes to mind. (God, I love that movie.) The instruction is, if you just think positive, you’ll be happy. Hey, if that’s working for you, keep doing what you’re doing, but I gotta say, it doesn’t work for many of my clients, or myself.
Of course, it’s a lot better than thinking negatively. When you buy into your thoughts (judgements, opinions, comparisons, assessments) then your emotions will correspond to the reality you create in your mind. If you think you’re a piece of shit, you’re going to feel like a piece of shit. If you think you’re the greatest person in the world, you’re a narcissist. Either way, you’re delusional. Just because you think a certain way doesn’t make it true.
I’m reminded of Rob Lowe’s character Chris Traeger on the sit com Parks and Recreation. He’s always super positive and everything is “litrally” the best thing ever. Have you ever met anyone like this? They describe pretty much anything they like as “amazing!” Really? You were amazed with your salad dressing? Come on. That’s fine if that’s how you talk. We can still be friends. But calling everything amazing doesn’t mean you’re happy.
Happiness isn’t the denial of painful emotions or the absence of negative thoughts. Sometimes things do go wrong. Sometimes life is unfair. Sometimes we have every right to feel anger, sadness, disappointment, and the existence of such emotion isn’t an impediment to true happiness. Happiness allows the spectrum of human emotion to flow through us without succumbing to or getting carried away with any particular emotion. In other words, negativity alone does not affect true happiness and positivity doesn’t necessarily make it more likely.
Happiness ≠ Pleasure
I bought a brand new car a couple years ago. The car I was driving before was 10 years old and was getting up there in miles. I really didn’t need a new car. I could have driven the old one a few more years and it would have been just fine. Mechanically, I had no problems with it. But technologically speaking, it was becoming, in my assessment, ancient. It didn’t have Apple Car Play, or a touch screen display, or even Bluetooth. (I’m a sucker for gadgets.)
I know. Poor baby, right? Well, whatever, I had an itch and good credit, so I went ahead and bought the thing. It felt so exhilarating driving my brand new Subaru off the lot. The smell of leather and the ease of navigating the new 8” touch screen display with the complimentary Sirius XM radio trial subscription was novel and fresh. I took the long way home. I would find reasons to drive my new car and I would use the Subaru emblemed microfiber screen cleansing cloth to erase my fingerprints from the vibrant display at every opportunity. My new car made me “happy” . . . for a bit.
You should see it now. It’s still new-ish. Hasn’t been washed in months. The child booster seats in the back seat have imprinted themselves into the leather seats. Crumbs, trash, sticky finger prints, and just filth permeate the back seat altogether (ah, the joys of parenthood). The front seat isn’t that much better. I can’t remember the last time I wiped that beautiful 8” display. A few months ago I accidentally knocked over the bike racks in the garage and they fell onto the hood, which is now slightly dented and scratched quite noticeably.
I don’t have those same feelings anymore. They probably only lasted a few months, a year at most. It was a fleeting experience. But it wasn’t happiness. It was pleasure. Pleasure is not happiness. Pleasure is like sugar when you’re feeling drained, but it’s not going to keep you going for too long. It’s nice! I love pleasure. I love tacos! I love sex! I love the wind in my face when I’m tearing across the lake on a jet ski. I love sitting on a patio by the fire looking at the mountains with a locally brewed hoppy IPA in my hand. My life is replete with pleasure. But these things don’t make me happy. Happiness is something else entirely.
When you aren’t happy, pleasure seems like a pretty fair replacement. But like a drug, you have to keep using and you begin to make pleasure your main source of life satisfaction. You’ve seen that unfortunate looking man in the park wearing only one shoe, strung out on heroin. He might not look it, but that dude is swimming in pleasure. He has only one concern. Where is he going to get that next hit? Because once he loses that high, he’s going to be in a lot of pain.
When you rely on pleasure to keep your head above water, it’s not so fun anymore. The same pleasure just doesn’t do it like it use to. And eventually, the absence of pleasure feels a lot like pain. You get bored more easily and it feels like something is missing. And in some ways, you’re right. Something is missing. But it’s not happiness.
When you’re living your values, doing what really matters to you, then the conditions for happiness are enabled. You have to turn toward what matters to you deep down, not just at the surface level. On the surface, a cheeseburger will do. But deep down there may be a strong desire to live a long and engaging life with as much mental and physical gusto to raise your kids and be a stable, enduring part of their lives for as long as possible. So, maybe don’t get the cheeseburger this time.
If that seems a bit disappointing, you’re not wrong. Sometimes making sacrifices now, lead to greater satisfaction in the long run. But only if it’s something you truly care about. Your values are your own and can’t be dictated or handed down second hand. If it matters to you, it matters to you. Your personal values do not have to be justified.
When we got pregnant the first time around, I had to give up my drum set (they lived in the would be nursery) and my truck (no back seat). Did that suck? Yeah, it did. I loved that truck. But I love my daughter so much more. When my actions support her wellbeing, even when I have to give up pleasure, I experience happiness.
Your values may lead you to do hard things. Do you think training for a marathon is fun? I doubt it. But nothing compares to the feeling of having completed one. What if your values lead you to quit your job and start a business? Or get out of an abusive relationship? Or quit smoking? These things are not easy. Fear comes to play and threatens to upend your life. You can either do what fear tells you to do to stay safe, or you can follow your values.
It doesn’t mean that everything is going to turn out the way you wanted. Values are about the journey, not the outcome. If happiness depended on outcomes, you’ll be waiting indefinitely. Values defines how you want to be as you pursue your purpose. As long as you’re moving in that direction, moving toward your life, happiness is possible.
So stop trying to find happiness. As long as you are looking for it, it will continually elude you. Stop asking yourself, “What will make me happy?” This is a backwards, and mostly inaccurate way of finding your purpose. Instead ask, “What sort of person do I want to be?” “What do I want to contribute to this life?” “What kind fo difference do I want to make?” Then do that. And eat a taco every now and then.