The Happiness Trap
What do you really want in life?
Some variation of “I want to be happy” is a common response. Wanting to be happy is natural. After all, it’s a very pleasant emotional state that’s associated with various hormones and neurochemical reactions that make us feel good.
Everybody wants to be happy because everybody wants to feel good, and the motivation to have a “feel good” experience is extremely strong.
Countless psychologists and scientists study the human mind, trying to find the formula to everlasting happiness.
In my own family, people go to great lengths to distract, pacify, medicate, or otherwise keep their children and themselves from feeling or (heaven forbid) expressing unhappiness. This shows up in various ways, like the pursuit of external accomplishments, materialism, or excessive entertainment and pleasure seeking.
But the idea that “I have to be happy” has a dark side. Like perfectionism, a hyper-focus on happiness to the exclusion of the other aspects of our humanity creates undue suffering.
Humans aren’t built to be happy all the time, and we shouldn’t try to be.
None of the prophets, saints, and enlightened beings were happy all the time. Their stories include periods of prolonged trials and tribulations that eventually led to awakening, wisdom and the realization of their life’s purpose.
But in our New-Age “me” and “now” culture, we are so focused on making our immediate experience a pleasant one, that we’ve prioritized the pursuit of happiness above all else.
Marketers know this and capitalize on it. The Pharmaceutical, Self-Help and every other industry from cars and hamburgers to lingerie and mutual funds promise to help you find happiness… if only you would purchase their products.
The problem is, that the promise never delivers for very long. Happiness is a fleeting emotion. It comes and it goes, and after a little while, we are left right back where we began, searching for the next high in an endless loop of ups and downs.
Also, the act of seeking happiness takes time, energy and resources, sometimes causing us to act in poor judgment. Sometimes the pursuit of happiness has unintended consequences which can leave us worse off than before.
Happiness is only one of several human emotions. Anger, fear, disgust, sadness, surprise and various combinations of them make up a spectrum of human experiences we are built to have. Pursuing a state of constant happiness while avoiding the others can create more unhappiness than the unhappiness we were trying to alleviate in the first place.
Ok, so if not happiness, then what should we be going after?
In a word… FULFILLMENT.
Think about this difference. Fast forward for a moment, and imagine you’re on your death-bed. Would you rather your last thoughts be “I lived a happy life” or “I am fulfilled.” It may seem like only a semantic nuance, but there is a world of difference in the quality of the experience.
Go for the complete fulfillment of your humanity.
Self-actualization is possible by embracing the truth of who you are and opening to the full spectrum of your human potential.
This is the core of the personal growth journey we are all walking.
Contemplations for Growth
- What are some of the ways you distract, pacify, medicate, or otherwise keep yourself from feeling unhappy?
- What is a difficult situation that’s causing you to be unhappy, that you’ve been avoiding, and that if you faced, you know would lead to a deeper, more fulfilling experience of life?
- When was a time you did something you thought would bring you happiness but actually ended up leaving you worse off?