How Happiness is Making You Sad

HappinessI know this may seem like a question with an obvious answer, but is happiness really worth pursuing?

We’re reminded about the importance of happiness everyday. We hear songs about it, we watch movies about it, and we see our happy friends on social media.

Everyone seems to have it, why shouldn’t I?

We seem to have learnt that happiness is a basic human right. The pursuit of happiness is even in the US Charter of Independence, along with “life” and “liberty”, as an “inalienable human right”.

Perhaps this isn’t surprising. Happiness is a good thing. Some of our most valued memories in life are probably of a time when we were happy. But, is happiness a worthy pursuit?

As an extreme example to make the point, imagine you could be happy your whole life, sitting alone in a room with a smile on your face. Would you look back on such a life as one that was well lived? Hopefully it’s obvious, then, that there are more important things in life than happiness. It would appear that a happy life without meaning or rich experiences is not something most people would want.

Happiness is fleeting. It has to be. If we were happy all of the time, it would stop motivating our behaviour. It would no longer serve its function.

Happiness can be a reward you get for achieving a goal, but should not be a goal in itself. It is a rewarding emotion that is associated with neural structures in the brain meant to encourage certain behaviour. It’s meant to motivate us.

That means that, if you felt happy all of the time, those certain behaviours would not be encouraged and your motivation to do anything other than sit around and breath would probably be non-existent. Happiness is a reward that’s meant to encourage functional behaviour. For example, you might feel happy when you get a promotion at work, so this reward encourages you to keep working hard and feel that rewarding emotion again.

Sometimes, this fact can be hard to remember. We often meet people who seem happy all the time. If someone asked them whether they were happy in their life, they may reply “yes”, and they may even mean it. But, generally speaking, they’re answering a different question (bear with me):

When considering whether we’re happy in our lives, most people answer by considering how close their life is to the way they want it to be. If we’re living the way we want to live, we’re more likely to say we’re happy. If our life is nothing like we want it to be, we’re less likely to say we’re happy. But, strangely enough, these answers actually have little to do with the emotion of happiness. Research suggests that, if someone asked you how happy you’ve been over the last year, you’d probably give an entirely different answer than if, over the last year, you were asked to rate how happy you felt at a given moment at random times over the day. In other words, you might feel stressed and overwhelmed moment-to-moment, but still report that, overall, you’re happy with your life because you’ve got the job / intimate partner / house you’ve always wanted. Even if you’re not actively feeling the emotion of happiness.

So what’s going on here? Nobody’s achieving ongoing happiness, but everyone feels like everyone but themselves is consistently happy. We see everyone else and we feel like happiness is something achievable. Just have a look at all the smiling faces and happy status updates on Facebook. But then, take a moment to look over your own Facebook activity and think about what people might think about you. Are there any photos of that moment you were sitting alone one night feeling like life could not possibly get any worse? Are there even any photos of your “bad side”?

So we’re all in the same boat. When people make this realisation, it can often be a relief. But then, one night, an episode of Entourage is playing in the background while you’re analysing your ex-partner’s latest holiday photos online and it’s easy to believe that life is meant to be one big party that lasts forever without any bad times. In that moment, you probably don’t feel great. This is what I mean when I say the pursuit of happiness is making you sad.

So what does all this mean?

We can never achieve an ongoing state of happiness? And is that a bad thing? Well, not if you look at the alternative. The truth is, we don’t really want to just be happy. We want to live a rich, full, and meaningful life, moment-to-moment.

Chasing things that create temporary happiness for us, or avoiding things that take away from our happiness, doesn’t make life any richer, fuller, or more meaningful. In fact, sometimes, making tough decisions or sacrifices can lead to some of our most valued experiences in life. For example, helping others can be one of the most meaningful things you can do, even if it makes you sad being exposed to a depressing aspect of our world. It will enrich your life whether or not it makes you feel happy.

The trick is to understand what your values are, and act in a way that is consistent with them. For example, if you value being a fit or active person, then eating well, exercising, or playing sports are all great goals that can help you live a rich, full, and meaningful life, without worrying about attaining that elusive happiness. It may come as a pleasant side effect, but even if it doesn’t, you probably won’t care.

I know this may seem controversial, and I’m not saying happiness is undesirable or even unattainable. It is just better thought of as an incidental part of life, rather than something we should all be chasing.

Image from Ian Iott