I’ll often open a therapy session with a new client by asking a very simple question –
“What do you hope to achieve from therapy?”
The most common answer is simple and to-the-point:
“I just want to be happy”
As people we are programmed biologically to want to improve our lives. It’s part of our survival mechanics. An unfortunate by-product of this instinct is that we persistently compare ourselves to other people and judge ourselves accordingly. Hence, when see people smiling and enjoying their lives while we sit there bullying ourselves, we make the false assumption that “everybody is happy but me.”
What we often don’t hear however, is that happiness is not what we should be striving for.
Happiness is an emotion. Emotions last, on average, for about 90 seconds. Therefore, happiness is fleeting. It comes and goes in waves. We cannot feel happy all the time because emotions are impermanent. Saying that you want to be happy all the time simply eradicates the whole entire spectrum of human emotion.
Being happy all the time is also paradoxical by nature because we cannot understand happiness without understanding suffering. It’s like saying “broccoli is the best food ever” because we have never eaten anything else.
It’s also important to acknowledge that all emotions are neutral. There is no such thing as a “good” or a “bad” emotion, they just are. Some emotions feel infinitely better than others, no doubt about it. But emotions can only be judged as being appropriate or inappropriate based on context.
It would be appropriate to feel happy when I spend time cuddling with my two beautiful greyhounds, but would it be appropriate to feel happy if one of them was to be put-down? I can feel happy when I go out with my friends for a delicious meal, but would it be okay to feel happy seeing a homeless person, emaciated on the street outside the restaurant?
A lot of us dislike feeling angry, but anger would be the most useful emotion to feel if someone was threatening us or our family. Anger helps us establish boundaries, to protect ourselves, helps us act quickly in potentially dangerous situations, and most importantly – anger drives us to instigate change!
Sadness feels awful. But sadness, just like all emotions, has its utility. Sadness helps us to understand what is truly important, since we generally feel it strongly when we have lost something. Feeling grief is a normal part of loss, and an important part of healing.
Feeling fear or anxiety plainly sucks, but if we were lost in a dark forest at night, surrounded by bear traps, that anxiety and fear is going to be plenty useful. If we felt happy in that scenario, we likely wouldn’t survive very long.
Contrary to popular belief, happiness is not our default human state. Our default is to scan our environment, look for threats to our safety, and react accordingly. This is what effectively keeps us alive. This is precisely why all people feel anxiety and fear (aside from psychopaths), and why most of our thoughts are negative (around 80%). We do this so we can problem solve to improve our quality of life. Now that we have evolved to a point where threats to our life are significantly less prevalent, we focus on other things that bring up anxiety and fear – like work, attractiveness, and relationships. All humans do this, and its completely normal. What would be abnormal is someone whose thoughts are 100% positive, who only feels happiness, and who lives their life unaware of the existence of other human emotions. This person has nothing to inspire them to be better, to treat others better, and would have no idea how to navigate troublesome and dangerous situations.
Some of us are happier than others, no doubt. But rarely are people as happy as they appear. Unfortunately, in the West we expect to be happy. If we were born in a country with horrendous human rights violations, we would likely have a very different expectation on happiness.
Instead of striving for happiness, we should be striving for self-awareness, authenticity, and value-based living. We should be striving to acknowledge and experience the full range of emotions available to us. We should be striving to appreciate sorrow like we appreciate joy, to appreciate anger like we appreciate elation. Being a human is inherently difficult, so let’s stop striving for it to be easy because we’ll ultimately be fighting a losing battle.
Let’s stop trying to be happy and just be.