Everyone wants to be happy. Our culture seems to have such an obsession with happiness and feeling good that it’s no surprise the self-help industry is worth over a billion dollars. But despite what many self-help gurus might advertise, there is no magic formula that will work to rid you of all suffering and guarantee a constant state of bliss. In fact, recent studies actually suggest a paradoxical effect in our relentless desire to feel good: chasing happiness makes it less likely to attain.
The paradox of chasing happiness
Research suggests that wanting to be happy to an extreme degree is associated with diminished well-being, greater loneliness, and (ironically) decreased happiness. Even more problematic is that individuals who place high value on attaining happiness are also at a greater risk for developing depression. As counterintuitive as it may seem, trying to feel good consequentially makes us feel a lot worse.
These research findings highlight an idea that’s been emphasized in different philosophies over the last few thousand years: the more you try to latch on to feeling happy and push away feeling badly, the more you suffer. This is because happiness, like all other emotions we experience, is a fleeting emotional state. It isn’t something we can preserve for extended periods of time and the more we try to do so, the more disappointed we feel when our efforts prove unsuccessful.
Pain is your ally
It is a universal human condition to experience pleasant and painful emotions that ebb and flow. The fact is, a lot of the uncomfortable emotions we experience (e.g., fear, stress, guilt) are meant to help us survive. If you run into a tiger while walking through the jungle and you don’t experience fear, you will almost surely die. That discomfort we feel is our mind’s way of saying “do something please!!!”.
Regardless of what the threat is, our emotions are there to communicate something to us (like “watch out, there’s danger!”), to motivate us to act (like run away or hide), and to illuminate what’s important (like safety and protection). When we’re so hellbent on trying to avoid and push them away, we miss out on the valuable wisdom and guidance our painful emotions can provide us.
The illusion of control
The truth is that, for the most part, we cannot control the thoughts, feelings, and sensations we experience. Despite our best efforts, we can’t avoid feeling pain and we certainly can’t make ourselves feel happy all the time either. To see this for yourself, try out the following thought experiment:
Imagine that someone points a gun to your head and tells you than you must not feel any fear at all, not even the slightest amount, or they will shoot you. They can also detect fear with 100% accuracy, so you can’t pretend or fool them… Do you think you could stop yourself from feeling anxious in that situation, even if your life depended on it?
Hopefully this experiment helped you realize that we don’t have as much control over our feelings as we’d like to think. But not only are efforts to control our inner experiences futile, they can lead us to suffer more in the long run. In fact, a major vulnerability factor for many mental health disorders involves patterns of behaviour aimed at controlling unwanted thoughts and feelings (ex: someone with social anxiety might avoid socializing to get rid of anxious feelings, but this leads them to feel even more anxious when they eventually have to socialize because they’re so out of practice).
Taking the red pill…
The unfortunate truth is that striving to “be happy” is a fruitless goal that results in greater suffering. Now, this doesn’t mean we should all throw our hands up and abandon all hope of living a “happy life”… We just might need to consider adopting a different understanding of what this notion means. If we instead consider a “happy life” to mean living a full and meaningful one (which includes the full range of emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant), we open ourselves up to a much more sustainable way of being. To learn more about how to take this alternative approach to happiness, check out part 2 of this series here.