If you want to enjoy your life, stop trying to be happy. There are so many books and podcasts and courses about finding happiness, you’d think there might be a formula or set of steps you can follow, but here’s the secret they never put on the book jacket: happiness is not a state that can be achieved.
What is happiness?
One thing that gets in the way of the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental misunderstanding of what it is. Is it joy? Is it life satisfaction? Is it love? Is it purpose and meaning? Happiness is a description of an emotional state of well-being or joy, but as we all know that state is fleeting. It’s not something you can keep or achieve.
Yet we persist in trying to attain happiness. We wish it for others, and spend our money on accoutrements that we think will make us happier. The fact that it never lasts is not actually a problem, it’s just the nature of being human.
It’s all relative
Without misery, there’s no such thing as happiness. If we went around in a state of unfettered joy we would not even have a word for happiness, and it would get really boring. The highs and lows are what makes life interesting.
Sometimes happiness is the relief of getting over a bad breakup, or out of a terrible job. But first you have to go through the bad breakup or terrible job to get the relief.
Constantly feeling upbeat and joyous would get boring really fast. Life needs a little texture to be rich and full, and that means feeling both joyful and miserable. Sometimes you can even feel a bit of both at the same time.
This is why I believe “being happy” or “finding happiness” are problematic goals. You should not set a goal that can never be achieved, because that will just make you feel like you’re failing at life.
Expectations are the keys to unhappiness
Finland and Denmark have consistently been coming out at the top of the World Happiness Report for years. These Scandinavian countries are not known for sunshine and joyousness, so why are they so happy?
The standard of living is good for one thing. Don’t discount the mood-lifting qualities of a good social safety net and access to basic necessities like food and healthcare. But doctor visits and grocery shopping have rarely caused great joy.
There are two things that make the Danes and Finns so happy: social connections and low expectations. Scandinavian cultures tend to be very grounded in friends and family. They gather to eat and drink together often, and report having people they can count on to help them out.
They also expect very little from life, and in fact have a somewhat cynical attitude that things are likely to be terrible. Maybe that comes from a long history of terrible things, but it has resulted in an unexpected happiness bonus. Almost all of life is a pleasant surprise!
In the United States we tend to cling to our expectations of American Dreams, affluence, comfort, and entitlement to all sorts of things we have been conditioned to believe we deserve. We invest ourselves in positive thinking, when in fact an assumption that everything that can go wrong will go wrong might just make us happier.
The quick fix paradox
Another very American tendency is the quick fix for a bad mood. We reach for a glass of wine or a burger and fries or a new Netflix series to soothe our troubled souls. And do you know what? They work. For a few hours we might feel something like satisfaction or contentment.
But here’s the catch: in pretty much all cases of the quick fix, you end up feeling worse later.
I’ve spent years of my life navigating the alcohol paradox. It is a truly effective drug if you want to lift your spirits or reduce your anxiety quickly. The paradox is that the more you do it, the more your depression and anxiety increase, and the worse you end up feeling overall.
After years of research, I can confirm: alcohol will not make you happy. And nor will that slice of cheesecake or episode of Schitt’s Creek (though the latter may be arguable).
I think a tendency toward overindulgence in life’s quick comforts can come from a place of believing you are “supposed” to be happy. If you’re not happy, then something must be wrong, and our brains seek out the things that seem to provide that quick fix, even when we know better.
What if you’re not supposed to be happy, or in fact in any sort of consistent good mood? Our biology is designed to send signals of danger or lack, so feeling bad is actually very normal (although our primitive biology sometimes misinterprets harmless inputs as threats).
Let go, for a moment, of the idea that it is desirable or even possible to be happy. It is possible to be joyful, content, satisfied, amused, engaged, awestruck, in love…for about nine seconds. And then some other feeling will come in.
When you become curious about your moods and feelings, you open up a whole new world. If you are feeling miserable, start to ask questions. Where is this feeling coming from? Likewise, if you are swept up in joy, do some investigation. You can learn what brings these fleeting feelings and eventually how to reproduce or avoid them.
What you can’t do is keep them. Like the weather, our moods will change whether we want them to or not. Once you accept that, you may just feel a bit less bad about feeling bad.
Maybe you can’t stay happy all the time, but you can experience moments of awe and wonder without much effort at all. LOOK AT THE SKY. Seriously. Just watching clouds, sunsets, falling snow, or shooting stars can fill you with that sense of awe. We are surrounded by beauty and majesty, if we can just take a moment to look for it.
In Brene Brown’s book and HBO series Atlas of the Heart, she delves into research her team has done on mapping the full spectrum of human emotion. They identified over 80 unique emotional states, but they found that most people are able to identify and articulate an average of three: happy, sad, and pissed off.
The value of being able to recognize and name a range of emotions beyond “happy” means that we can seek out joy, laughter, awe, connection, and flow as unique states with known triggers.
The impact of awe comes from a sense of experiencing something much bigger and grander than ourselves. We can look outside ourselves and experience the vastness and beauty of the universe. On the other side of that is the interior experience, and in my opinion the ultimate interior experience—and the closest thing to happiness—is flow.
Flow is that feeling of being so totally engaged in what you are doing that you lose track of time, stop thinking about the past or future, and feel the satisfaction of being challenged just enough.
“Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi introduced flow theory in the 1970s based on research examining people who did activities for pleasure, even when they were not rewarded with money or fame.”
Activities that don’t challenge you enough feel tedious, while activities that are too challenging can feel frustrating. You want to find something that hits that sweet spot.
Some people may find flow in a spreadsheet. Others is scaling a mountain. I can find flow when writing, drawing, or walking in the woods.
Flow is a kind of mindfulness hack. We’ve all heard by now that “being here now” is the key to everything, but it can be really hard to do when your brain is bouncing around, trying to plan lunch and solve global warming. But when you get into that one activity that takes you away from your own mind and into one task, you might start to feel a little…happy.
Try exercise and fresh air
I used to take antidepressants. I’ve also tried a whole lot of self-medication. And yes, some chemicals and substances can make you feel a little better, but they will never make you happy.
Though I haven’t been medicated in several years, I still sometimes experience some low-level depression. Unless I take a walk. Since the beginning of the pandemic I’ve gone for a pre-lunch walk of a mile or three almost every day, and I have been amazed by the mood lifting capacity of just getting outside and moving your body.
The scenery matters. I walk through a wealthy, leafy neighborhood with lake views and flowering gardens, and cut through tree-filled parks. You may have heard of the Japanese practice of “forest bathing,” and though it can be tricky to get into a true forest as a city dweller, I have been able to find pockets of nature to evoke that sense of awe (it’s not hard to be awestruck in the Pacific Northwest).
There have been quite a few studies that indicate a positive impact on mood from spending time in nature, or simply walking outside. The results are best when you take out your earbuds and actually experience the natural environment for at least 30-40 minutes. Personally, I find a two-hour walk to be just about the most mood-lifting thing I can do, when I can find the time.
You don’t have to be happy
If you think you have to be happy to enjoy your life, you will be doomed to chronic dissatisfaction. Happiness is not a constant state, and we use the word to describe a slew of different, nuanced emotional tones. Cultivate joy, awe, compassion, humor. Find a combo of moods you like, and put them on repeat.
And when you’re unhappy, miserable, despondent, annoyed, or pissed off? Realize that this is part of life, too. We get to feel all the things. It is the gift of being human, and absolutely something to get used to. We all have bad days and experience heartbreak, tragedy, and loss. So rather than trying to avoid, deflect, or numb those feelings, learn to expect and appreciate them.
What could life be if it wasn’t spent in pursuit of happiness (and avoidance of discomfort)? Maybe we could pursue something more meaningful and tangible than a feeling. And maybe that pursuit of meaning and purpose is a sort of happiness.