The Paradoxical Pursuit of Happiness
Written by Jessica A. Jaramillo, MS, LPC. Interim Crisis Coordinator and Clinical Supervisor at the Counseling CenterSep 9, 2022
What is happiness? For most people, this can often feel like the elusive goal of life. Just be “happy”. But what exactly does that mean?
Happiness is commonly perceived as a fixed state of being, a recurrent form of joy or at the very least, the absence of negative affect. It can sometimes seem like the end-goal of one’s existence, or even a way to escape the pain of the moment (“if I can just be happy then all the sadness will go away”).
In reality, happiness is but a transient human emotion; and by nature of such it can only exist one moment at a time. It is characterized by an overall sense of contentment and well-being, or even bursts of joy and excitement. The frequency and intensity can vary, but ultimately -as an emotion- it succumbs to the same biological laws as our anger, sadness, and disgust; and it will always lack objective permanence.
When the belief that happiness can and should be consistently sustained clashes with a reality in which it cannot, it creates a particular brand of suffering. A disillusionment that can stem from the self-judgement of not being able to hold on to the ephemeral, regardless of the circumstances. It is often interpreted as evidence of personal failure (in the realm of emotional success), as opposed to a normal facet of the human condition. “Why am I not happier?” The modern paradox of happiness is then created.
This means that understanding the fleeting nature of happiness also includes normalizing, and even welcoming, the presence of our more unpleasant emotional experiences. In other words, permission to “not be ok” without the self-imposed expectation of having to fully justify or disregard our struggles, while recognizing that these uncomfortable feelings are bound by the same patterns and will not last forever. Essentially, not allowing ourselves to feel sad will only make us sadder.
So, let’s put this in concrete terms. Popular narrative sells the idea that happiness is mainly achieved through a sequence of significant milestones, getting that college degree, finding a life partner, buying that luxury item or vacation. Or, on the flip side, the belief that if certain negative events occur, we will never be able to experience joy in the same way. For example, have you ever engaged in any of these happiness myths:
- "My life will be perfect once I land my dream job”
- “I’ll never truly be happy if I can’t find a romantic partner”
- “I don’t think I’ll recover from this break-up, only they can make me happy”
- “Once I can buy ---- I’ll be happy”
- “The best part of my life is over”
- "I will never recover from this loss”
- “Now that I’ve achieved ---- my life will be good”
- “As long as they’re in my life, I will be happy”
- “Why am I sad when I have everything?”
- “Other people have it worse, I should just be more grateful”
- “I just need to graduate, and everything will be ok”
And while it is true that temporary happiness can be in fact gained/lost through these events, the principle stands, and eventually the level of emotion created by such circumstances will return to baseline and fluctuate throughout time. The main misconception residing within these myths is the belief that these states exist in absolutes, and within that negating the inevitable duality and ever-changing nature of life.
This is not to say that life cannot be pleasurable, enjoyable, and fulfilling. On the contrary, a common and very achievable objective that comes up in therapy is: How to create a life worth living. The essence of this premise is all encompassing, and not a one-time thing. One of the ways we approach this in counseling is by learning how to live life through values instead of goals. And even though goals are necessary and a big part of our life satisfaction, a shift to a value driven life can create long-lasting meaning, and a sustained sense of fulfillment.
If you’re unsure on what your main values are, Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap, has a great starting question for you: "Imagine I could wave a magic wand to ensure that you would have the approval and admiration of everyone on the planet, forever. What, in that case, would you choose to do with your life?"
In therapy, this also entails a tailored approach to help clients identify and continuously create purpose through these values. It sometimes requires embracing the pain, and crafting joy in ways that are uniquely fulfilling to each of us; all the while holding both extremes simultaneously. More importantly, it doesn’t negate the hard parts, and it doesn’t strive for perpetuity. Grasping this dialectic, in many ways, is the ultimate entry card into a happy life.To summarize, happiness -in its colloquial understanding- encompasses a complete acknowledgement of reality. Research shows that happiness requires meaning, as well as learning how to embrace discomfort. It involves holding the good, the bad, and everything that exists in the in-between. Russ Harris, states that popular conceptions of positivity and happiness can be dangerous because they set people up for a "struggle against reality”. "If you're going to live a rich and meaningful life," Harris says, "you're going to feel a full range of emotions."
It is also worth remembering that adding small changes in our daily habits can greatly enhance feelings of emotional well-being and increase general satisfaction; some of these things include:
- Working towards achievable goals (big and small)
- Mastering a new skill
- Social relationships and connection
- Doing at least one small pleasurable activity a day
- Taking care of your health through exercise, good sleep, and regular food intake
- Practicing gratitude
- Spiritual practices/beliefs
- Mindfulness practices (learning to be in the present moment without judgement)
- Trying new things
- Engaging in altruistic causes/activities
- Written by Jessica A. Jaramillo, MS, LPC
Recommended Readings & Video's:
The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living by Russ Harris
Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl