If you really want to be happy stop trying so hard

It’s time to start letting go of being happy all the time.

by: E.B. Johnson

Everywhere we look, we are bombarded with varying ideas of happiness. TV’s sell it to us in the shape of their products and wares, and magazines and self-help books scream it from their frontmost pages. Happiness is the end all and be all in life; it’s a worldwide obsession and craze.

As humans, we want to be happy. That’s what’s in our natures. We spend almost every single hour of the day chasing the things we believe will make us happy — even when those things are based on empty promises and shallow magazine cover models.

We work hard to achieve a standard of happiness we find acceptable. We invest our time, our resources and our energies to become happier people, but even when we achieve those standards the victory often feels hollow, shallow.

Why? Because pursuing happiness as a goal is an epidemic — and a super unhealthy one at that.

According to science, if you really want to be happy you need to put down those self-help books and start getting real.

The pursuit of happiness.

Humans have been chasing their happiness since the beginning of time (just look at the Declaration of Independence) and it’s led to major innovations that have made our lives easier and more convenient.

Our obsession with this idea of individual happiness didn’t occur until 1998, however, when Martin Seligman made positive psychology the focus of his time as president of the American Psychological Association.

Psychology until that time had been centered around one theme: the negative behaviors and thought patterns that fueled unhealthy disorders. Doctors and researchers alike focused all their energies on mental illnesses and its effects, rather than looking for the positivity that was no doubt lurking there among it.

Since Seligman made this transition, the world has become inundated with thousands of books, articles and even TED Talks on the subject, addressing the reality of happiness and how we can cultivate it in our lives.

The problem with many of these books and articles and talks, though, is the fact that striving for happiness might just be the wrench in all our grand schemes.

Why our happiness is actually making us sad.

According to a recent study, it’s actually our incessant pursuit of happiness that is leaving us feeling down-in-the-dumps and more rotten than ever.

Conducted by researchers from Rutgers University and the University of Toronto Scarborough, a preliminary revealed that the more driven someone is to “pursue” happiness, the more anxious and stressed they became.

The study confirmed what many of us have known for a long time: the harder we try to make ourselves happy, the more unhappy and anxious we become.

It’s almost as if happiness as become a commodity in our modern world. We believe that if we just focus and try hard enough, we’re catch the tail of that infamous tiger and find our way back to those pleasant feelings of love, light and elation.

This doesn’t work, however, as we are so focused on happiness and our positive emotions that we have created a taboo and a stigma around all the other ways we feel and react. We prioritize our happiness over everything else and it only goes to deepen our isolation and feelings of hopelessness or depression.

Rather than helping us to overcome the challenges in our lives, our obsession with happiness is creating a double-edged emphasis on the negative feelings and emotions we all experience. The more we walk around focusing on our happiness, the less happy we actually become.

If we want to find happiness (true happiness) then we have to embrace the good with the bad and take our darkest moments for the learning experience that they are.

Monkey see, monkey get depressed.

If you’ve ever been told to just “cheer up” then you know how hard it can be to force happiness when you’re feeling really low. You also probably also know how suffocating that outward pressure to “be okay” can be.

Our happiness is amplified (or destroyed) by comparison with those we see as socially desirable. When we scroll through Facebook or watch the videos of our favorite stars, we often see the over-the-top cheerfulness that mimics our perception of being happy. Comparing our lives to these people, we begin to feel insecure, anxious and even depressed. We also develop the idea that we must be happy all the time — no matter the inner costs.

The more pressure a person receives from his or her social environment not to experience negative emotions, the most likely they are to experience depressive symptoms. When people tell us to “just choose happiness” or “not be so negative” all the time, they’re actually commanding us to hide ourselves and pretend that we’re something that we’re not.

How to find happiness organically.

The idea of happiness seems elusive, and the idea of finding happiness without hard work seems even more far-fetched. After all, we’ve spent our whole lives being taught that happiness was something to be achieved like a trophy.

Even the ways we define happiness are problematic. Many of us envision a smiling, bubbly person when hear the word “happiness” and we almost always associate that same person with material wealth and success.

We know that happiness is an inward and outward process, but we don’t know how to execute it. We don’t know where to start and we don’t know when to stop. We’ve become lost thanks to our tunnel vision, losing sight of how we get from Point A to Point B.

1. Define what happiness means for you.

To find true happiness we have to come to define what the word means for us.

For some of you, happiness might be a big family and little blue house with a white picket fence. For others, happiness might look like big-time career or a simple life in the mountains. Happiness is different for each of us and without being able to define it we can’t hope to identify it in our lives.

Take some time away from all the people and all the distractions. Find a quiet place and let your mind settle. Think about the things in your life that make you happy — truly happy — without asking the world of you. Consider the things you want in your life and the things you want from your life.

Define what happiness means to you and you’ll find it all around you.

2. Embrace your dips and dives.

Suppressing your negative feelings in order to project some shallow vision of happiness will lead you down a dark path that will only work to suppress the light you carry.

Thought it may seem counter-intuitive, the best way to get rid of our negative emotions and cultivate a state of genuine joy is to embrace our sadness and our darkness just as much as we embrace our light. By noticing and naming our emotions when they happen, we can realize them for what they are: dimensions of our experience.

Offer yourself some compassion instead of judgement and understand that you don’t choose these emotions, they just happen. Accept yourself and the feelings that you have and don’t act impulsively on the emotions that hit you the hardest.

3. Use the resources you have to hand.

Part of this fake happiness narrative we’ve built seems to go hand-in-hand with the idea that you need to have vast financial resources in order to secure some sort of happiness. This is, of course, based around a superficial sort of happiness and won’t necessarily do anything to make you happier at all.

Sure, money can give us a boost when we’re feeling low, but even science agrees that — once our basic needs are met — money cannot stimulate genuine, authentic happiness. The things that actually have the biggest influence on our emotions are free.

According to studies, sleep, social interaction and exercise are the 3 major resources that impact our happiness the most substantially.

You can’t enjoy anything when you’re exhausted, and going extended periods of time without sleep will actually leave you feeling depressed and anxious. Getting the sleep you need will go a long way in leaving you feeling positive and ready to tackle the challenges that your life presents.

Social interaction too is one of those free resources that can help us to cultivate genuine happiness in our lives. As humans, we need social interaction to thrive; when we connect to others we connect to our true selves. Even small interactions can have a huge impact on your moods and the way you view yourself, and your happiness is affected massively by the people that surround you.

Exercise too will boost your mood, and developing a regular exercise practice has been proven to release hormones that stimulate your body and your mood.

You don’t need a million dollar or an Instagram photoshoot on a yacht to be happy: you to need to start reconnecting with the world around you.

4. Reengage.

We are so disconnected these days and it shows in our emotions, behaviors and the way we beat ourselves up every time any delusion of ours goes wrong. Disappointments pile up and before you know it you’re shut down and shut off, absorbed in a digital world of superficial pleasure that makes the hurting stop long enough to forget about it.

Connection is the common thread that binds us all to every living thing on this planet. When we connect with our world, we connect with that living, throbbing heartbeat that drives us forward and we rediscover ourselves.

We are wired for interpersonal connections and we’re wired to exist in a world that’s full of challenges, stimulation and beauty. If you really want to be happy, figure out how to reconnect and reengage with the passions and people that matter most in your life.

5. Stop trying to predict the future.

Our society is obsessed with predicting what the future holds for us. It’s easy to understand, though, as knowing what’s ahead comforts us and gives us a sense of control. This sense is a complete illusion, though, and this fixation on the future is just as damaging as our fixation on happiness.

As humans, we are terrible predictors of the future and even more terrible predictors of the things that will make us happy and more well-rounded. We buy things on impulse that we instantly regret and react with behaviors that make us cringe years after the fact. We’re the worst, yet we try to predict what our happiness will look like years and years away and we fixate on it until nothing satisfies us.

Have an idea of what you want your future to look like, but build that dream on shifting sands, rather than concrete. Being flexible with our futures allows us to leave our minds open to new experiences that expand our definitions of happiness.

While that blue house and that white picket fence might look good now, will they still look as good in ten years? How about twenty?

Fixating on the future and thinking you can control it is a sure fire way to disappoint yourself. Being flexible with our futures, rather than doggedly driven, goes a long way in allowing us to manage our expectations and leaves us more resilient when things aren’t quite the way we pictured them.

Stop viewing the future as an etching and look at it more like an Etch-a-Sketch. That pretty picture might be there now but it could all be washed away tomorrow. Embrace the change and you’ll find happiness waiting for you.

Putting it all together…

People love to read about quick-fixes and how-to’s but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to finding the happiness in our lives.

As a society, we have learned to conceal our true selves as we bury emotions that come back to haunt us in the form of hopelessness and negative behaviors. We are led to believe that happiness lies without and we have to do everything we can to get it. We’ve crippled ourselves with lies and untruths and (at times) it can feel like there’s no getting beyond it.

Happiness is a state of being, an emotion that passes right through us when we least expect it. It can creep up silently on us and it can creep away just as silently, leaving us bereft and feeling worse than ever.

In order to find true happiness we must define what happiness looks like to us and embrace it with all the radical change that comes with it. We must reengage with the world around us and use the resources we have to hand, cultivating organic happiness that empowers us to design the future that we want.

Above all else, though, we must embrace our darkness just as we embrace our light. Life is full of twists, turns and obstacles which will cause us to stumble and fall. It is those calamities which make us human; it is that darkness that allows us to see the light.

If you want to be happy — truly happy — start by embracing your humanity.