Since you have clicked on this article on a website called “The Sunshine Review”, I’m assuming that you want to be happy. And if you know me in person or on social media, you know that I like to talk about goals and happiness. And to be honest, I truly believe that we can and we should be happier. So let me give you a piece of advice: Stop trying to be happy!
I know, it’s not the piece of advice you expected. Bear with me for a few moments (paragraphs) and you will see what I mean. It’s going to make sense in the end, I promise!
I know that this may seem counterintuitive, but if you really want to be happy, you have to stop chasing happiness. I first heard this idea in the audio version of a book called “How to Be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use” by Randy J. Paterson. The book tells you what you can do to maximize your misery. But here’s the twist: it tells you about all these strategies to make you realize that you are doing many things to ensure your misery, even though you may actually want to be happy. It’s meant to open your eyes, make you laugh at yourself and realize that there are some things you are doing wrong.
One of these strategies to maximize misery is to “aim for happiness directly!”. I used to think that, if you want to be happy, that is what you are supposed to do: to try to be happy. But after listening to this book, reading and thinking about it, I realized how detrimental this really is.
You and I know that if we want to achieve something such as losing weight, earning more money, learning a new language, we have to focus on those goals. We have to determine what we want, how to get it, work on it and track our progress. And once we have made it, we can celebrate and set a new goal! I still believe that this applies for almost anything in life.
But I no longer think that it applies to happiness. If you think about being happy a lot, you will often ask yourself “Am I happy now?”, “What about now? Am I happy?”. If you say “Yes”, then you feel even better since you have achieve the state you were aiming for. But if you realize that you are not happy, then you will possibly feel a bit worse after analyzing how you feel. If you just go on with your day, you may feel alright. But once you realize that you are not happy, as YOU have decided to be, you may feel a bit disappointed. Ask yourself this question a few times every day and in time you will probably feel worse and worse.
But let’s be realistic now. We cannot be happy all the time. It is practically impossible. And we should not even try to do that. Aiming for happiness directly and realizing that we are not there, will make our experience worse just because of our obsession with happiness.
Plus, we have to realize that the way we understand happiness may be incorrect and shallow. Being happy is not the same as feeling happy. At least that is what I think…and I think I can also prove it.
According to Martin Seligman, “the father” of positive psychology, there are 3 types of happiness we can experience: pleasure, engagement and meaning. 1
Read my article on the topic to understand this so that you know what kind of happiness you should seek and how.
In short, pleasure is what we feel when we enjoy something, such as good food, a new dress, a new cellphone and almost anything that makes us feel good. We experience engagement when we do something we enjoy and are good at and enter a state of flow. And we live meaningful lives when we are working on a goal that we believe in and that is higher than ourselves.
The only happiness we feel in the moment is actually pleasure. So if you ask yourself “Am I happy now?”, you are actually asking yourself “Do I experience pleasure right now?”. If you happen to be eating your favourite kind of food, the answer will be yes.
We have all experienced pleasure and we know it when we feel it. But, according to Seligman, pleasure is the one type if happiness that contributes to life satisfaction the least. Pleasure is short-lived, shallow and it does nothing for us in the long term. Engagement (or flow) contributes to life satisfaction much more and meaning contributes to it the most.
However, when we are engaged in something we enjoy, we do not always feel happy in the moment. As Seligman points out in his book “Flourish”, when we are fully engaged in an activity, we lose track of time and of ourselves. We are not thinking and feeling anything or we are not aware of what we are thinking and feeling. But when that activity is over, we feel great, satisfied and happy. And we want to engage in that activity again. 2
If you want to experience a state of flow, you have to work on something that you enjoy and are good at. It has to be something challenging enough to push you out of your comfort zone, but not so challenging that it feels impossible. There has to be a balance between the challenge of the activity and your skill level.
However, as you can imagine, doing something like that requires time, concentration and effort. You may even feel stressed at time – but in a good way. Think about the way you feel while running a marathon, striving to create a beautiful design for a website or writing and rewriting an article or a novel. The experience in itself may not seem pleasant while you are doing it. So if you ask yourself “Am I happy?” while you are in flow, you will probably say “No”. But when it is done, when you have pushed yourself and succeeded, you will feel amazing! It will feel much better than any chocolate cake or gourmet food you can find anywhere on this planet.
What about meaning? That is something you experience when you are on a mission. You believe in something that can be beneficial to other people or society as a whole. You fight for or work for the greater good. And it is very rewarding and it makes your life feel meaningful and worth living. It makes you feel happier with yourself, with your life and possibly with the world.
But working on a meaningful mission that is higher than yourself will not always be easy or feel good. You may have to make sacrifices, to put aside time to do unpleasant tasks. You may have to give up some of your money, your pleasures or your goods. When you live to serve others, you inevitably sacrifice a bit of yourself. You would do this by volunteering to cook for homeless people, help package and send goods to the people that lost their homes in a fire or call people to ask for donations for orphan children.
And if you ask yourself “Am I happy?” while doing that, you will probably be feeling anything but happiness. You may feel tired, worried or anxious. However, you will keep doing that because it makes sense to you. It matters to you. And seeing the impact that you can have makes it feel worthwhile. When you realize how much you have done and how much more you can do, you will feel happiness – but a different type of happiness.
And there is also a possibility that you may be doing something incredibly important and meaningful without ever knowing it or feeling happy because of it. As Seligman points out, Abraham Lincoln may have believed that his life was meaningless. 2 But we look up to him for the impact he had. In some cases, only time and history will show how much someone’s life has contributed to the world…
And I don’t know about you, but if you ask me, leaving a mark on a few people or on the world and leaving it better than I found it is much more important than feeling pleasure and thinking that is what matters. As you have seen, if you are constantly wondering if you feel happy, you are chasing pleasure. While no on denies that this is something we enjoy, I believe that we should not live our lives searching for pleasure. There are things that are far more important and rewarding and that can impact us and other people in deeper and more meaningful ways. Choosing to limit ourselves to pleasure means that we will never get to experience something more meaningful and worthwhile than that. And that would be a shame.
But let me tell you about my experience as well…You’ll see how all this affected my life in the past. Last year, at one point I realized that I was very unhappy. To be honest I was depressed. I was feeling hopeless and wondering what the meaning of life is. I could not understand how I was supposed to live a good life and I became stuck. When I realized how bad I was feeling and why, I decided to be happy. So I started learning about what made me unhappy and how to become happier. The more I learned, the more hopeful I felt. I started applying what I knew and I became much less unhappy and a bit happier. I got to the point where I knew that I only had to keep going to become even happier.
You may know that at one point I realized that what I was learning was so valuable that I wanted to share it with more people that were in my shoes. So I continued learning and I wrote a book called “Happy by Choice” meant to help people replicate my experience and get better.
I would spend my time doing research, reading books and articles, writing and rewriting my book. During those months of work, I was not happy all the time. But I kept working, knowing that I had to finish my book. I felt that I was on a mission to make the most of my struggle and help alleviate the pain of others. I was thinking that I might help 1 or 10 or 100 people become happier and enjoy life a bit more and that seemed like a worthy goal. I felt like I was on a mission and that gave me the strength to keep going. You may have realized that what I was experiencing in those months was meaning. I finally had something meaningful to think about, read about, write about and that made me happy. I was chasing meaning and I got to experience happiness as a positive side-effect. And, I have to tell you, this type of happiness felt so much better!
But once my book was published, I felt like my work was done. I failed to set another worthy goal to strive towards and my life was once again great, but devoid of meaning. I started feeling sad and depressed again. And then I wanted to focus on happiness. It is strange to look back and realize that I knew I was not supposed to pursue happiness, but I tried to do it anyway. I know, human nature sure can be strange…In the following weeks, I kept trying to be happy. But of course, it was not working.
I was once again stuck in a strange limbo, hoping to find the way out by running around and looking for pretty flowers. Surely, it is good to stop and smell the roses, but do not do that while you are on the wrong path. My attempt to “become happy” only made me feel more miserable with my life. And, on top of that, I also felt like I failed myself. I would ask myself “Why is it so hard for me to be happy?”. And, of course, this only made everything worse. But after some time, something clicked in my head. I finally knew what I wanted to do again. I wrote my goal down, set my milestones and went back to work. Now if only I could make sure that I will never forget that aiming for happiness is the path to misery…
We all know that happiness is hard to achieve. It is much more easier to make money, go shopping and chase the pleasurable things in life. And you can do that – it is up to do to decide how you want to live your life.
But keep in mind that chasing happiness and ignoring the power of meaning is like saying “no” to your dream job and choosing to work at McDonald’s because you like eating a free Happy Meal every day. There is no shame in working there, but it is a shame to chase the wrong things and forgetting about what is worthy, rewarding and good for you!
So, if you truly want to be happy and satisfied with your life, stop chasing happiness! It is much better to focus on living a life of engagement and full of meaning. Do that and one day you will be surprised to notice how happy you really are.
- Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism
- Martin Seligman, Flourish