How many times are we told to do what makes us happy or to seek out happiness in our lives, as if it’s an end goal?
Everywhere I look, magazines, commercials, shows, movies, books, media of all kinds and the culture in general all encourage us to seek our own happiness. It’s even built into the very foundation of our country within the Declaration of Independence, “life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness.” We live in a time and place, where for many of us, it’s incredibly easy to pursue happiness. We can have anything we want delivered to our home within 2 days, if not 1, thanks to Amazon. Smart phones allow us access to incredible amounts of information and technology with the swipe of our finger. We can easily travel anywhere we want in the world. How much of what we own was bought pursuing happiness? And yet statistics show we are more depressed and unhappy than we’ve ever been before. Our life expectancy has dropped for the first time in decades. Substance abuse and addiction is rampant and killing more people every day.
If the pursuit of happiness is really what it’s all about why are we so unhappy?
As a therapist I deal in emotions all the time. I work to help my clients identify, understand and feel their emotions. This is challenging work because emotions can be very uncomfortable. We often seek to distract ourselves from our emotions, particularly the negative ones because the intensity of them can be scary. I often hear clients express a belief that if they go into their emotions and really let themselves feel the pain, sorrow or fear, it’ll never stop. But the truth I always encourage my clients with, to help them take the step forward into their emotions, is that emotions change and they will not last forever. Just because you feel intense sadness, pain or fear in this moment does not mean you will feel it forever.
Eventually you will move through it and feel something else, maybe something like joy, peace, contentment, interest, curiosity, satisfaction…
This is the problem with the pursuit of happiness; happiness is an emotion and emotions don’t last, emotions change from moment to moment, day to day.
When we base our life’s goal on the pursuit of happiness we set ourselves up for failure and a constant seeking for more; which can create a perfect breeding ground for depression, hopelessness and even substance abuse. “This relationship that once made me feel so happy has now gotten hard so maybe it’s no longer “right” for me because I should be happy.” “I don’t feel happy in my job anymore so I’m going to quit, again.” “I bought this top last week because it made me happy but now I’m shopping again because that feeling faded even though I’m swimming in credit card debt.”
When happiness is all we pursue, we miss out on so many other rich opportunities in our lives to feel and experience. How to Be Perfectly Unhappy by Oatmeal is a wonderful little comic strip that describes how our definition of “happy isn’t very good, it’s a monochromatic word used to describe a rich, painful spectrum of human feeling.” We are meant for more than just happiness, our lives are meant to be full of dynamic, deep, meaningful experiences and emotions. We are meant to find purpose in our lives and live out that purpose.
Living out our purpose doesn’t always make us happy. It gives us so much more. Come back next week where we’ll explore the power of purpose.