The Pursuit of Happiness Is a Terrible Idea

The Pursuit of Happiness Is a Terrible Idea

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When our American forefathers penned the Declaration of Independence, citing our unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, they had the right intentions.

The flaw, however, is that the “pursuit of happiness” implies that happiness is an end goal.

No one says,”this is the year I’ll finally catch that happiness”, or, “darling, we’ve been putting off happiness far too long. This weekend, let’s pick up some happiness.”

Yet, our culture is obsessed with the idea of “being happy” as something to work toward, some sort of ideal state that we should strive to constantly maintain. We’re constantly drinking from a proverbial fire hose of information about how to achieve happiness.

Notice how people react to one another when someone is not happy. You’ll hear things like the half hearted, “good luck with whatever you’re going through,” or the flat-out, “get over it, already.” People can’t stand to be around someone “dealing with something” so they try to cheer them up, or, they’ll avoid them until they’re “back to themselves again”, which roughly translates to, “not bothering them anymore with their un-okayness.”

The medical community has profited greatly from our desire to constantly be happy. They’ll agree with you that something is terribly wrong if you’re not happy all the time. You have a chemical imbalance that needs to be addressed, and luckily, they have pills for that.

But what if your constant state of unhappiness is not clinical depression, but years of suppressing your “negative” emotions until you can no longer fake it? This article published on The Mind Unleashed in March, 2015 explains more about this topic and how our intense emotions (depression) make us human, not crazy.

Is it okay to be sad sometimes?


A trend started to develop with the helicopter-parenting era, wherein it was decided that children needed to be “happy” and it was the parents’ job to ensure that their little angels never felt a moments sadness or disappointment. Usher in “everybody gets a trophy” and parents showing up for college interviews.

It’s natural for parents to want to protect their children from pain. But protecting them from ever feeling sadness is denying them the very real human experience of living. Processing our emotions, be they elation, humiliation, heartbreak, devastation, is completely normal. Teaching children to suppress those emotions, or jumping in and eliminating all potential conflict, is setting them up for a future where they are unprepared for the realities of life.

To know how to handle feelings like failure, grief, losing, harsh criticism and anger is what helps us mature. We have to get through those things and know that we’ll survive them. Mind, Body, Green published a great piece on Why It’s Totally OK to Feel Sad and Lonely (June, 2015) which delves further into this subject.

Humans feel a range of emotions, and that entire range is normal. Staying on “happy” all of the time is neither normal, nor realistic. (By the same token, chronic depression is also not normal and should be taken seriously.)

Where does happiness come from?

Recent studies reveal that about half of our happiness factor is determined by genetics (if you’re interested, check out The How of Happiness by  Sonja Lyubomirsky for more on this). And the other half, is determined by a combination of ourselves (within our control), and our circumstances.

Let’s take a look at that. If we can only blame half of our unhappiness on our parents, then we’re still responsible for the other half. According to Lyubomirsky, we own roughly 40% (the last 10% being circumstances). This is where we’re free to develop and cultivate our own happiness, however we choose. Hence, the abundance of advice on how to do it.

Now, I’m not saying that all this advice is poor or futile. For example, take a look at this list from an article posted by the Mayo Clinic entitled, How to be happy: Tips for cultivating contentment:

People who are happy seem to intuitively know that their happiness is the sum of their life choices, and their lives are built on the following pillars:

  • Devoting time to family and friends
  • Appreciating what they have
  • Maintaining an optimistic outlook
  • Feeling a sense of purpose
  • Living in the moment

That’s some solid advice, and in most studies on happiness, or contentment, these key elements show up as the necessary ingredients. But is it really that simple? And if so, why aren’t we all doing it?

My guess is that it’s a matter of how we’ve defined happiness.

How have we defined happiness?

You may be well familiar with all of the statistics on how Denmark is the Happiest Country in the World, while the other Scandinavian countries consistently round out the top 10 list. But if we take a closer look, it’s highly subjective, for the simple fact that it’s dependent upon things like how and when the questions were asked, as well as each nation’s perspective on whether or not it’s okay to declare too much happiness, while further still not agreeing on what it means to actually be happy.

The Atlantic published an excellent article by Michael Booth further explaining the Denmark happiness studies in January 2015 (you can check it out here). In it, Booth explains that asking someone from Denmark whether or not they’re happy will result in a resounding “yes” because as a culture, it’s frowned upon to express unhappiness or discontent. However, in Japan, it’s seen as poor form to describe oneself as overly happy when humility is the more acceptable cultural norm.

Many psychologists prefer to refer to happiness as , “subjective well-being.” This is to suggest that we all define and interpret “happiness” in very different ways.

Consider this example: should my neighbor be selected to run the Boston Marathon, he may be feeling very happy about that. However, if I myself find that I have been chosen to run the Boston Marathon (any marathon,really), I doubt very much that I’ll describe my feelings as happy.

For millions of people, what makes them happy is actually the pursuit or anticipation of something. Think of business executives driven by closing a huge deal – they feel happy about that, or even yourself during the weeks leading up to a dream vacation, that anticipation makes you just as happy as the actual trip.

For still others, it’s not really feelings of joy and love bubbling over while their hearts swell that makes them feel happy. It’s the security of a good job, a roof over their heads, old friends, few bills and a reliable car.

Or further still, what about those who have died for their beliefs? Surely imprisonment and torture didn’t make them happy, did it? Not likely, but they weren’t striving for “happiness”, their pursuit of their ideals was larger than that. Even contentedness wasn’t their goal. They cared more for the pursuit of their inherent purpose than their “happiness”.

I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die. – Nelson Mandela, April 20, 1964

I’d argue that most of us are not necessarily pursuing happiness; we’re pursuing contentedness, or our “subjective well-being”.

You’ll sometimes hear people refer to someone as “never happy” or “nothing will ever make them happy”. Is that really true, or is our definition of what should make them happy not making them happy? Are you trying to give someone a car when what they really need is a boat? Keep in mind that one person’s rainy day curled up in front of a fireplace with a good book, is ruining someone else’s important playoff game.

Life teaches us how to be happy.

Before you accuse me of being a kill-joy wallowing in a constant state of melancholia, please understand that what I mean by all of this, is that not only do we get to decide what makes us happy without anyone else’s opinion, but during those times when we’re not happy, it’s totally okay!

[Tweet “Going through that which makes us human furthers our appreciation for contentedness. – Jessica Barrett on Mrs. Jones Could Use a Beer.”]

Think about the whole of our lives for a moment. When we scan through the years and come upon the highlights and the low times, those rough patches, tough years and “bad places” all shaped us into who we are; strengthened our character, increased our ability to empathize, softened our edges. But more importantly, it helped us to appreciate our “happiness”. Sickness helps us appreciate our health, missing someone helps us appreciate their presence, and scarcity helps us appreciate abundance.

I do sincerely wish you happiness, but not as it’s defined by me, or your mother, or your best friend. And I hope that you’ll recognize those times when you’re not happy, and know that you’re human, and that you’re doing life.

It isn’t the things themselves that disturb people, but the judgments that they form about them. – Epictetus


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