Why Chasing Happiness is Total BS
We spend so much of our life trying so hard to be happy. Secret is, it doesn't work all that well for anyone. How much money and time do you spend trying to make you, your family, and your friends happy? Have you ever created resilient and enduring happiness?
The Chase is Endless
Take a moment and think back to a time you had a really great moment of happiness. Maybe you were at a party, just got a raise, or you were on vacation. How long did it last? How long before the challenges and stressors of life started to seep back in? Probably not long - likely a few minutes or hours. Now what? Are you supposed to find a way to leave all of that behind and try to be happy again? Sounds like an endless game of hide and seek, where you run from all the hard things in life and hope they don't find you.
But the hard stuff always finds us, doesn't it? Try as we might bills have to be paid; we go back to work; and the laundry, dishes, and house won't clean themselves. Maybe these aren't the things you run from, but we all have those things in life that we want to run from.
The Weather Control Machine
Our feelings are sort of like the weather. We have so many different feelings that come and go in a day. We can imagine the sky during the day, clouds come and go, some sunshine, maybe some rain or snow. Have you ever had a day where you were just one set feeling all day? No way!
We might have an overall feeling of contentment, frustration, or boredom that hangs around -- but even those feelings disappear and reappear as we go about the day. That's normal and part of being a human.
So, we do all kinds of things to try to feel good. When I explain it to my clients, I call it the Weather Control Machine. This machine evaluates every moment and says "Am I happy right now?". When it detects a moment where we're not feeling good, it will send a message to other parts of our brain to say that we need to do something to get rid of, avoid, or distract ourselves from this not-good feeling. What do you do? Maybe you go have a doughnut, scroll social media, have a drink, watch tv, etc.
The Machine is Broken
Our Weather Control Machine will send us off on these feel-good errands, but doesn't really concern itself with the costs or how effective it is. Costs? Sure there are!
First, we pay the obvious costs; mostly time and money. The things that may be less noticeable are far more concerning. Let's think back to that doughnut scenario (or insert your favorite comfort food). Often times our comfort foods are things outside of our 'ideal' diet, which is totally fine because we eat them only on occasion. What if we turn to that comfort food on a regular basis to make us feel good? You can bet that our wallets and waistlines will suffer for it. On a deeper level, the Weather Control Machine will train our brains to react more automatically. When I feel X I do Y to feel good - In this case, when I feel bad I eat doughnuts to feel good.
The question here is; does this kind of action lead to a sense of lasting contentment, joy, and love or does it just add a moment of a happy feeling?
My guess is that it is that moment of good feeling and not the lasting ones. On top of only getting that brief feeling, we can guess you might be upset with yourself at some points as the costs (money, time, health costs) add up. As you can see, If we let the Weather Control Machine deal with all of our problems, we end up running around seeking short-term good feelings.
Sounds terrible. What can I do?
The first step is accepting that the default feeling of a person isn't happy. In the past many scientists and philosophers thought that by providing a person with the bare basics - food, water, shelter, and a companion - people would be happy. If that were true, why are so many of us just miserable? It is because it takes more than the basics to make a full and meaningful life!
Second, we need to dispel the common belief that most people are happy. It's just not true. According to the National Institute for Mental Health, an estimated 11.7 million Americans reported having been clinically depressed in 2017 (National Institute of Mental Health, 2017). More over, suicide rates in the United States have increased over the last 20 years (American Psychological Association, 2019). The fact is that most people are not happy all the time. They feel a big variety of things just like you - just like the weather. This is absolutely normal and just part of the experience of being a human.
I want to take a moment to acknowledge that feeling happy is great. No one wants to be miserable, especially when it isn’t necessary. I think it is safe to say that most people would prefer to be happy all day. The reality is that chasing the is a waste and it hurts more than it helps.
Okay. What Now?
The best thing you can do to start is: observe your behavior. Notice when your Machine starts beeping, talking, or sending out messages. Take a moment to be in the here and now. Take a survey of your mind, your body, and your surroundings. What's setting off the alarm on your Machine?
Maybe your boss just had some things to say about your work, you are stressed and tired, or you’re thinking about some things from the past. We can look at our reaction to these things and ask, ‘What is this telling me’? Your boss’ comments? Maybe your work, quality of work, or what your boss thinks of you - is important to you.. Stressed and tired? Perhaps you’re missing something to look forward to, something satisfying, or you need more self-care. What you can learn from the moment is specific to you in the moment - and of course beyond my ability to speak to here.
What should you do? Follow what is important to you. Be the person you wish you were deep down. One where you can be proud of who you are, who you've been, and the path you've walked. It won't be easy - not by a long shot. It might not make you feel good in the moment, but it will begin to build a sense of satisfaction or overall positivity in your life. With this, you can stand up to those days where the weather is a big rainstorm and enjoy those moments where the sunshine comes out. Look to a future article about how to figure out what is really important to you in life - the answers may surprise you!
Happiness is a feeling that our brain tries to create by having us do all kinds of things. These things have real costs - some obvious and some less so. These costs add up over time and can make the effort to try to create that feeling expensive (in terms of time, money, health costs, etc.). In addition, the efforts to make us happy don’t contribute towards lasting satisfaction, joy, or contentment or bring us closer to being our best self. Instead, it can hurt our mental health and lead us away from what matters. To help address this, we can observe our reactions when we start to try to make ourselves feel good in response to a bad feeling. These bad feelings can tell us things about what is important to us and reasons why we might be running for that good feeling. Then, depending, we can take action to improve our mental health by not running, and instead being with the things that matter.