Skill #25: Why Trying to Feel Happy Backfires

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Skill 25, stop trying to feel happy, might be a little confusing at first. We’ve been duped into thinking that happiness is the goal of life. Happiness may be the outcome of a good life, but if you put all your efforts into happiness, you may end up feeling miserable. People who live rich and fulfilling lives focus on their purpose and their direction — their values — instead of putting all their effort into being happy.

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how’.” -Nietzche

When I worked with teenagers in wilderness therapy, I would often ask them the question “What do you want from life?” The vast majority of them would say something along the lines of “I just want to be happy.” 

Many of them had put loads of work into that desire. They sought happiness in friendships and in drugs; they looked for pleasure in dangerous behaviors and sexual exploits; they tried to escape pain through smoking pot or avoiding school or family. They hated their parents for trying to stop them from enjoying life. 

The harder they tried to feel happy, the more miserable their lives became. 

The Pressure to Feel Happy

In America, there is a constant pressure to feel happy all the time. Maybe it’s because the pursuit of happiness is written into our constitution. But somehow this has warped into a mixture of using happiness to sell products and a sense of shame for not feeling happy all the time. “You’re not feeling happy? What’s wrong with you?”  

Research shows that the more pressure we put on ourselves to feel happy, the worse we feel. On a side note, making people feel miserable but promising them happiness if they buy your product happens to sell more products. 

People who try to live up to society’s expectations of happiness tend to feel worse in comparison to people who focus their lives on their purpose, their values, and meaning. Today we’re going to look at one way we can create a good life without becoming obsessed with happiness.

In my humble and perhaps pessimistic opinion, we’ve been duped into thinking that happiness is the goal of life. Happiness may be the outcome of a good life, but if you put all your efforts into happiness, you may end up feeling miserable. People who live rich and fulfilling lives focus on their purpose, their direction, and their values instead of putting all their effort into being happy. 

The Problem With Struggling to Feel Happy

Check out this comic by The Oatmeal, “How to Be Perfectly Unhappy”:

I really think there are some people who can or do feel happy much of the time, but they aren’t struggling to feel that way. And for the rest of us, struggling to feel that way often makes us feel worse. 

That comic was based off the article by Agustin Burroughs: He starts off with:

“I just want to be happy.”

I can’t think of another phrase capable of causing more misery and permanent unhappiness. With the possible exception of, “Honey, I’m in love with your youngest sister.”

In our super-positive society, we have a zero-tolerance policy for negativity. But who feels ‘Great!’ all the time?

Yet at first glance, it seems so guileless. Children just want to be happy. So do puppies. Happy seems like a healthy, normal desire. Like wanting to breathe fresh air or shop only at Whole Foods.

But “I just want to be happy” is a hole cut out of the floor and covered with a rug. Because once you say it, the implication is that you’re not… 

Still, this recipe of defining happiness and fiddling with your life to get it will work for some people—but not for others. I am one of the others. I am not a happy person. There are things that do make me experience joy. But joy is a fleeting emotion, like a very long sneeze. A lot of the time what I feel is, interested. Or I feel melancholy. And I also frequently feel tenderness, annoyance, confusion, fear, hopelessness. It doesn’t all add up to anything I would call happiness. But what I’m thinking is, is that so terrible?

I know a physicist who loves his work. People mistake his constant focus and thought with unhappiness. But he’s not unhappy. He’s busy. I bet when he dies, there will be a book on his chest. Happiness is a treadmill of a goal for people who are not happy by nature. Being an unhappy person does not mean you must be sad or dark. You can be interested, instead of happy. You can be fascinated instead of happy.

The barrier to this, of course, is that in our super-positive society, we have an unspoken zero-tolerance policy for negativity. Beneath the catchall umbrella of negativity is basically everything that isn’t super-positive. Seriously, who among us is having a “Great!” day every day? Who feels “Terrific, thanks!” all the time?

Anger and negativity have their uses, too. Instead of trying to alleviate some of the uncomfortable and unpleasant emotions you feel by “trying to be positive,” try being negative instead. Seriously, try it sometime. This will help you get in touch with how you actually feel: “I feel hopeless and fat and stupid. And like a failure for feeling this way. And trying to be positive and upbeat makes me feel angry and feeling angry makes me feel like I am broken.”

If that’s how you feel—however you feel—then you have a base line, you have established a real solid floor of reference. Sometimes just giving yourself permission to feel any emotion without judgment or censorship can lessen the intensity of those negative emotions. Almost like you’re letting them out into the backyard to run around and get rid of some of that energy.”

I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says, but I do think seeking positive emotion and avoiding negative emotion is a trap. Both of these lead to rumination or seeking the next high.  Happiness is a good thing, but trying to feel it all the time makes you feel worse. 

An Alternative to Seeking Happiness

I (and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) propose a radical alternative to seeking happiness: make your life about your direction and your purpose instead. Allow yourself to feel all the feelings, and put your energy towards something else.

A rich and fulfilling life is more likely to be found when your life has a purpose.  What beauty are you creating with your life? What good are you doing in the world? What are you building? What are you making? 

A self-centered drive toward feeling good tends to lead to loneliness and misery. When we center our lives on our purpose, on what’s meaningful to us, and when we move in that direction, we tend to be joyful. 

When I use the word “joy” I mean a lasting appreciation of the beauty of life, fulfilling relationships — even when that includes pain — seeing and creating goodness and abundance rather than demanding happiness. 

I can find joy in a long and painful hike or a freezing cold wind, but that doesn’t mean that it’s fun or comfortable. It might be, but joy is bigger than comfort. 

Same thing with love. We can create love by reaching out to others, but to risk loving also risks hurting. But to not risk loving guarantees hurting.  We create love by reaching out to others.

A Real-Life Example

So going back to my years in wilderness treatment. 

It was really interesting for me to watch these teens in the desert. Their circumstances were difficult: we hiked long miles, we slept under tarps, we ate simple foods cooked over a fire. They had no drugs or sweet foods or cell phones or video games.  But as the weeks went on, something bright inside of them began to glow. 

They would feel a sense of awe in the amazing sunrise, or they’d get excited about their most recent cooking creation involving flour and dried beans, or they’d laugh their heads off playing a game of stickball. 

And as they spent time in the quiet nature, they started to see their life from a broader perspective. They cared about the people they were with, they missed their parents, they talked about their future, and the way they talked started to change. They began to talk about helping others, or they’d talk about their little brother. They opened up and talked about trauma and philosophy, and they’d tell stories, and we’d have the most amazing group discussions under the stars. 

And then one day their parents would come to visit, and a surprising majority of them would run to their parents and hug them and cry with joy to see their mom and dad. These were the same parents they’d cursed only weeks earlier.

And even though their faces were filthy, their eyes would shine with this excitement and joy for life. If you asked them if they were happy out there, I doubt many would say yes, but if you asked them if it was worth it, many would say it was the best experience of their life so far. 

And just in case you’re wondering, I do feel happy some of the time — and other times I feel lots of intense emotions, from crying with a client in therapy or feeling stressed about the next YouTube video. But that’s all good for me — my life is about doing good in the world, and I love it. 

So “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/With your one wild and precious life?”-Mary Oliver

What do you want your life to be about?

Your mortal life is just a short blip in eternity, but it matters. What are you going to put your energy towards?

The Assignment

For this week’s assignment, I want you to go to a cemetery and walk through the headstones. As Robin Williams says in Dead Poet’s society, “Soon boys, you’ll all be fertilizing daffodils. Carpe diem.” Look at what people chose to be remembered by.  Some of them are remembered by sports, others by hobbies. Some focus on their families or their beliefs. 

Write about what you want your life to be about. Is there anything you need to change about your direction and priorities to make that happen? 

If you look at the big picture of your life, does that help you change your perspective on the momentary challenges of “The Now”?

In the next post we’re going to talk about how you can define your values, the things that matter most to you, and how to use those to overcome challenges like anxiety and depression. 

Extra Resources

“Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. The story of a Jewish doctor’s experiences in a concentration camp, and the life purpose that evolved from that experience. 

“The Purpose Driven Life” by Rick Warren

3 Happiness Myths:

Finding Joy in the Midst of Difficulty:

If you want to go deeper, check out my full How to Process Your Emotions course with added bonuses below.

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