Few things make people more miserable than the pursuit of happiness (at least in Western cultures). This issue is particularly salient in the U.S. with our tradition of rugged independence and the notion of “the American Dream.” We grow up being taught that to have a good life we must be “happy.” And culture teaches us that we get happiness from having that nice car, good job, cute apartment, friends, and a rewarding love life.
But what if you have not been able to get those things? Can you still be happy? And what if you have it all and are still not happy? You might think that something is wrong with you. All of the pieces are there, so what is the problem? Maybe you are comparing yourself to your friends who look so happy out on the town and on Facebook. This can add up to a sense of despair, and you may find yourself feeling depressed. Why has happiness evaded you?
The problem lies at least partly in our flawed definitions of happiness.
According to Vocabulary.com, “Happiness is that feeling that comes over you when you know life is good and you can’t help but smile. It’s the opposite of sadness.”
This definition is not helpful. If you base your experience on this definition, you would not feel happy if you were not smiling and you certainly would not say you were happy if you had any tinge of sadness. In other words, most of us would not feel happy a good deal of the time. This definition has happiness being a mood or feeling… as if we are all supposed to be walking around with big grins on our faces.
The definition also erroneously states that happiness is the opposite of sadness. But this really depends on your age. Research indicates that sadness and happiness are not opposites. They can exist at the same time.
But somewhere, we were taught the idea that “sad is bad,” that we cannot be happy and sad at the same time. Therefore, sadness is to be avoided at all costs… through work, seeking status, love and anything else you can use to convince yourself that you make the grade. The idea that sadness is bad also gives rise to depression. I often tell clients that depression is sadness along with all the defenses you use to keep from going there; like ruminating on how things might have been different, or engaging in self-criticism, or getting irritated and angry, or getting lost in your murky thoughts.
Sadness does not need to be avoided.
In my clinical practice, I spend a lot of time trying to break people of the notion that sadness is somehow bad. If you start off with a high level of anxiety and worry, I might even suggest to you that as you make progress and your brain calms down, you could start feeling sadder — and this would be a good thing.
If you can accept your sadness and not be frightened by it, you may find that it is a fairly quiet, deep, and reflective emotion. In that context, sadness does not need to take away your joy in life.
Personally, I learned this lesson at age 19 when my mother died unexpectedly. I was so grief-stricken that I could barely speak. Words of comfort did not help. There was really nothing anyone could say. I remember walking home at night from my restaurant job and looking up at the full moon. I just let myself experience the full depths of my grief. And, amidst the tears I came to a deep place of stillness and silence; and from that place, I experienced a state of joy that made my soul feel truly rich. The sense of joy did not take away my sadness. Nor did it bring a smile to my face. But it did give me a sense of being alright.
If only I had stayed in that state of being. But I was afraid that I would end up being a 19-year-old spiritualist or monk, so I turned to seeking happiness again in all the wrong ways. This pursuit of happiness almost killed me. But when I came out on the other side at the age of 26, as if emerging from a war zone, I remembered my experience after my mom died. I again was able to accept the simple truth of my situation and sit with (accept) my shortcomings, failures, and sorrows. I could experience my sorrow along with a sense of joy and happiness.
But, in this more mature sense, happiness is not a mood. It is a state of being that is derived from having a sense of integrity, purpose, and meaning in life.
Websters online defines happiness as “a state of well-being and contentment.”
Contentment does not mean that you do not take action to change negative situations. Take all the action that you can and get engaged in your life. Fight the good fight. And when you lie down to sleep at night, even if you are alone and don’t have enough money, remember to accept the situation and feel good in committing to your values and action. Then you can derive a sense of happiness even with your struggles.
Remember, you can experience well-being and contentment and still be sad. In this sense, happiness is not a mood. It is a state of being.
On most days, if you ask me if I am happy, I will say yes. Someone who does not know me might follow up and state “so you are not sad then?” To which I might state that I am indeed sad. After all, I, like you, can be in a sad mood and still experience a life of happiness.
Recommendations for finding contentment:
Accept that sadness is a clean emotion that does not need to be avoided. It does not need to be figured out, explained, or justified.
Commit yourself to a life of purpose. Find something that fills you with passion and that you can dedicate yourself to. Don’t wait to find the right answer before taking action. Find a purpose or cause and pursue it. If the energy leaves you, just find another purpose and pursue that (being honorable in not pulling the rug out from under others who have been working with you).
Get clear on what your values are and live by them. Develop a personal code.
Give yourself time and space to sit and be still.
Note: If you research this topic further, psychologists often use the terms “subjective well-being” or “satisfaction with life” rather than “happiness.”