The Path to Lasting Happiness
How Giving up the Pursuit of Happiness Made Me Happy
Happiness is overrated. After all, the leading cause of unhappiness is the very pursuit of happiness itself! I mean, what is happiness anyway? Are you pursuing what society defines happiness is, or are you pursuing what it means to you?
We see ads, TV shows, movies and product packaging everywhere showing that happiness is perfection: the perfect smile, the perfect body, perfect job, diet, home, partner, children etc. Are we really pursuing happiness or are we pursuing perfection thinking it will bring us happiness? The truth is perfection does not bring happiness, and no matter how hard we try to direct and control our lives, life simply isn't perfect.
We are led to believe that unhappiness is bad and that happiness is good, in the same way that decades ago introversion was seen as undesirable, and extraversion as desirable. Now we’re understanding that both personality traits are perfectly normal and valuable in society.
Happiness and unhappiness are not a state of being, they are emotions on the seesaw of experience just like fear, jealousy, guilt or love. They go up and down. Even someone in the deepest despair can still laugh at something funny or feel the warmth of an act of kindness, even if it is momentary. Just as it is unhealthy to be unhappy for too long, it’s also not healthy to be continually happy. We all know that person who drives us nuts with their insane happiness and impossibly positive attitude. Are they really happy or is it all a façade to hide their own insecurities? The façade may be so securely constructed that they may even have fooled themselves into believing their own deception.
Lessons In Happiness
I was never a particularly happy child in the sense that I didn’t have the inexhaustible energy of my peers and I preferred to be on my own listening, learning, observing, exploring instead of joining in the silly games and mindless gossip. Naturally, this made me a target of bullying and turned my school life into a misery. My peers thought I was weird, and my parents and teachers thought there was something wrong with me—I was shy, too sensitive, too serious; I had to be depressed. Later in my 20's I learned about introversion and extraversion and realised I was just introverted, but as a child I had no way of defending myself when dad scolded me for being "so depressed" and told me to try harder to "be happy."
If being happy meant being like the other kids then I wasn’t interested. I just wanted to be me even if it meant not living up to the ideal happy kid that everyone expected of me. I knew I would never achieve that ideal because it would mean becoming someone I wasn’t; finding "happiness" in things I didn’t enjoy and the realisation did instill in me some feelings of failure, negativity and low self-esteem. Why couldn’t I be happy too, just being myself? Why was happiness something only the popular and cool kids got to enjoy? But, determined not to give in and change to be like the other kids, I focused instead on simply not being unhappy. I figured I might not be able to be happy, but that didn’t mean I had to be unhappy.
In my 20's I continued to build on this, reading books on psychology and cognitive behavioural therapy, personality traits, assertiveness, relationships and on finding happiness and purpose in life. I trained myself to turn negatives into positives, to see that things can always be worse: "I got drenched walking from the bus in the rain. But at least it was on my way home so I could change my clothes as soon as I arrived."
I trained myself to be less demanding, to be okay with disappointment—I changed "I want’s" to "I’d like’s:" "I want it now" became "I’d like it now, but it’s ok if I have to wait."
I trained myself to consider other possibilities for situations and people’s behaviour. If a friend passed me without saying hello, instead of thinking that maybe she didn’t really like me after all, I’d consider that perhaps she didn’t see me or was in too much of a hurry to stop.
I learned to find joy in the simple things—savouring a freshly-made, still warm doughnut on a cold day, and pleasure in the ordinary—working on hobbies while listening to music.
The True Meaning of Happiness
In the process of not focusing on finding happiness and reframing the negatives, I attained a neutral position; one of contentment, harmony, purpose and fulfillment. The irony is, when you achieve this, you realise that you actually have achieved the true meaning of happiness. So, going back to that seesaw of experience, in order to find true happiness one needs to attain balance by finding contentment and meaning in the everyday.
I grant you that it isn’t easy. Society-defined happiness is an addictive goal, but it’s an illusion like a rainbow that no one can ever truly capture. It takes work to discover your own happy and stick with it, and life doesn’t cooperate in your quest. I sometimes wonder if I broke a mirror at some point as the last seven years of my life have been incredibly difficult with job difficulties, several moves, health issues, brain surgery, relationship break-ups, illness and death of a parent, earthquakes, near-death of a friend, redundancy, pet deaths, financial difficulty, more health issues, the list goes on. And yet overall I feel so fortunate and thankful for my life just as it is. I am more content in my life now than I have ever been and yes, I do consider myself… happy.