“How to be happy?”
A wise (wo)man would know better than to answer such a question. Or to think that it can be found in a random blog post.
So why then, my dear reader, would it be worth reading my musings on the topic?
I am not the happiness guru, nor do I have a degree in happinometry. All can I tell you is that I`m a very happy guy who used to be an unhappy guy. But with most of the internet’s happiness advice consisting of copy-pasted platitudes and misattributed quotes, the bar is currently set pretty low. So I believe I have something better to offer.
The search for happiness usually begins with the realization that we’re unhappy. This could come in the shape of a major depression (as it did for me), or it could be a more subtle feeling:
Maybe you consider your life to be okay and you feel good most of the time. But now and then, in a moment of silence, you become aware of a feeling inside you that could best be described as an emptiness or a lack of meaning. A sense that even though things are going well ,something is missing in your life. Or even in yourself.
You may not be certain what that “something” is, but you do know it’s out there. So the first mission on your quest for happiness is to find the missing piece and catch it.
Where exactly you’ll start looking for it, differs from person to person. But there’s one thing we all have in common: We chase it in places where it can’t be found. And then we try to convince ourselves that we did, until that sinking feeling creeps up again.
In the next part of this post, we’ll go over some of the common strategies for happiness together and figure out where they fall short. While some may already be obvious to you, there are deeper layers to do this, that most self-help authors and motivational speakers refuse to talk about.
1. Seeking Happiness In External Circumstances
At the most obvious level, this manifests itself as looking for happiness by obtaining shiny objects: A fancy car (with personalized license plate), a high-class handbag or a diamond Swarovski crystal bathtub for your dog. I don’t think it needs much explaining why these things won’t bring you -or your chihuahua- any closer to happiness.
Another less “materialist” version of this, is the endless chasing of dopamine spikes. We most easily recognize it in the form of an addiction to things like Heroin, Gambling, Medicines, Alcohol, Cigarettes, Cocaine or Video Games. But much more commonly, it can come in the shape of posting on social media to get likes, mindless web browsing, eating sugar or even just “being busy” all the time.
The principle behind both of these things is the same: You feel good when your brain produces the right mix of chemicals. But when it’s over, you no longer feel as happy as before. So you chase the next thing that can get you back to those “good” emotions as quickly as possible. Whether it’s a drug, a new pair of sneakers, or a pat on the back from your parents.
Most of us at some point realize that this doesn’t make us happy and continue the search for something more fulfilling. If you currently still find yourself in this dopamine carousel, this will be the first “loop” to get out of. It may take some time, as you may have some mild addictions to deal with first. But anyone who has transcended this chapter of the happiness quest will be able to attest that the effort is 100% worth it.
2. Depending On Someone Else for Your Happiness
Another popular flawed strategy is to look for fulfilment in someone else. When we do this, we long to find a partner that will somehow make us “whole again”. If you are currently already with someone (whom you may or may not love) this will not be experienced as a longing, but instead as fear that if this person were to leave you, you would no longer be okay.
While being in a healthy, strong relationship can greatly increase the amount of happiness in your life, you are most likely to succeed in building such a relationship when you’re both already happy by yourself.
Thinking someone else’s love will magically “make you happy” not only puts an unrealistic and unfair demand on that person, it also makes you prone to disrespecting your own personal boundaries. Which of course will make you less happy about yourself (one of the many ironies of life).
Think about it: If you believe you need this other person to be happy… then how will you respond when they treat you in a way that you don’t like, but there is the implicit threat of them leaving you if you wouldn’t tolerate that behavior from them?
3. Setting Goals to Postpone Your Happiness
Goals are great. They can inspire us to grow, to expand our lives, and to contribute something meaningful to the world. In fact, it was a goal that made me sit down and write this post today.
However, more often than not, goals are an insidious way of procrastinating on being happy right now.
This works in a very similar way to shiny object syndrome, except that it usually happens a bit later on your happiness quest.
At this stage, you feel pretty fine on most days. If someone asked you to rate your happiness level on a scale of 1 to 10, you would most likely give it a 7.
You’re getting so close to that 10 now, that on some days you can even taste it. So you ask yourself “What if I could feel like that every single day?” What would I need to change in my life in order for things to be that way?
And lo and behold, from the depths of your deepest desires, arises a goal to answer that call.
Maybe it is to make a little more money. To lose a few pounds. To get a job that excites you more than stocking shelves at the grocery store. Or simply, to plan a nice vacation in a country without corona.
Great! Whatever floats your boat, go for it.
But while there is a lot to gain from most goals, in the end, you may find that once you reach those goals, you won’t feel very different from before.
You may experience a moment of pride or satisfaction. But as the cliche has it, you’ll look back and find that the journey was more important than the reward.
So now you have your six pack, your dream job or your covid-free vacation. And for a moment it feels amazing …until suddenly it strikes again: That odd sensation in the pit of your stomach that tells you that while you’re certainly not unhappy, you’re also not completely happy yet. So it’s time to set the next goal!
If this cycle reminds you of the dopamine-driven behavior described earlier in this article, you’re not too far off. It’s basically the same thing but at a much slower pace: Instead of chasing quick highs and short term rewards, we slowly hike towards the top of “Mount Goalia”, hoping that the highs up there will stay with us longer than a fleeting moment. But as the last season of Game of Thrones so painfully illustrates: The finish line is usually where the fun ends. And then it’s time for the next story.
4. “10 Habits to Create Sustainable Happiness”
When you Google “How to Be Happy” , the number one search result is titled “How to Be Happy: 25 Habits to Add to Your Routine”. Scroll a bit further, and you’ll soon notice that the rest of the pages aren’t very different from that one, the only variation being the amount of habits required to achieve said happiness.
While well intentioned, this is the level of advice where things get tricky. And a place I was personally stuck in for a long time.
What all these articles get right, is that they help you out of the endless cycle of chasing highs and instead help you to a lifestyle that allows you to feel good on a daily basis.
But the problem with this approach is that while the recommended habit changes will definitely do their part in making you a more stable person, you are placing all your faith in a set of behaviors.
This is the kind of happiness that most self-help books will teach you. On the surface it works very well, but it’s a lot more fragile than it appears.
Sleeping well, eating well, thinking positive thoughts and sipping detox smoothies are definitely healthier options than snorting cocaine off an STD-riddled hooker’s toenail to get your kicks. And if you manage to stick with the habits, you may end up feeling happy for quite some time.
But what happens when for some reason you can no longer do any of these things any more?
When my dad passed away last year, I became pre-occupied with grief for quite some time. As a result I didn’t always have the mental space to behave like that perfect version of myself. Many days would pass, when I delivered sub-optimal work, skipped a workout or was just not a fun person to be around. And I didn’t feel happy about that.
It made me realize that for years, I had felt happy simply because I ticked all the right boxes. I did the right things, thought the right thoughts and surrounded myself with the right people.
But now that I couldn’t keep up with that for a while, it turned out that whenever I didn’t fulfill my “requirements for happiness”, I also didn’t feel happy anymore.
If chasing dopamine and craving other people’s love are like a “roller coaster” of highs and lows, then this “habits for happiness” strategy is more like walking a tightrope very skillfully. You may sustain happiness and stability for a very long time. But inevitably, you will fall down at some point. And then the question becomes “How can I be happy when I’m down?”
5. Being Happy About Who You Are
Many smart minds have come to the conclusion that happiness is not to be found in external things, but in yourself. That it is a byproduct of living with integrity and knowing that you are a person with value, who possesses positive qualities.
Taking things less personally, and recognizing your own positive traits are obviously signs of a healthy psychology.
But just like with “happiness habits” example, what you need to watch out for here is becoming dependent on it. And requiring of yourself to exhibit a particular character trait in order to be happy.
Human beings are inherently flawed, and we definitely can’t be at our best 100% of the time or our best would become our worst.
If you’re proud of yourself because you identify as intelligent, your happiness may feel threatened when someone points out the flaws in your thinking (which we all have).
If you derive your happiness from your beauty, a pimple may impact your mood.
If you are happy because you know that no matter what, you will always be a good person,
you may be putting unnecessary pressure on yourself. Or even start shaming yourself when you accidentally do or think something you judge as “bad” (which you inevitably will).
When those things happen, will you remain as happy? Or will it require some mental effort to “get back to loving yourself”?
Just as with the previous tightrope example, if your happiness depends on being a particular person, then once upon a time there may come a situation that causes you to act out of character. And in that moment, you’ll be back at the start of your journey.
When is the search for happiness finally over then? If none of the above things count, then where in the world can you find true happiness?
As lame as the answer may sound: The search is over once the search is over. Because the very act of searching for it, turns the concept of happiness into something to be attained that is currently not in your possession. As long as you continue this search, its goal will forever remain elusive like the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
But once the search is over, you will find yourself in a certain situation, feeling a certain feeling and thinking a certain thought. It could be a moment of joyful exstasy, deep suffering, or boring mediocrity. But whatever it is, it will be unique experience that you will never experience a second time. Yes, maybe you’ll be in the same place doing the same thing again, but you’ll have slightly different thoughts. Or you’ll be feeling a similar way but in a different context.
And once that moment has passed, a new one will follow it right after. But no matter how sad, joyful or scary they are, you can choose to relate to both moments (and all that comes after) in the same way. As unique experiences to be had during your short period here on earth.
You can accept the ebb and flow of life’s circumstances. You can accept the rhythms and cycles of your own emotions and those of other people. And instead of holding on to some of them, and pushing back against others, you can just let them pass like waves. Knowing none of them can actually make or break your happiness.
When you see that, like the events outside of you, the ones inside of you are also just passing waves, you can separate yourself from what you are feeling, thinking or doing.
One of the biggest barriers standing between a person and their prolonged happiness, is the idea that happiness is an emotion. Because emotions are by definition moving and therefore, we can not keep them with us.
In other words: As long as we keep looking at the passing waves and hoping that one of them will be “happiness”, we can not find it. Because instead of being yet another wave, I believe happiness is to be found in the way you relate to the waves.
Sometimes life’s waves will take you high, and sometimes they’ll drag you off into the deep end. It would be impossible for life to be made out of only highs, because then the highs would become the new boring. So of course, the existence of “highs” require there to be lows as well.
But underneath it all, what remains unchanging is your ability to appreciate every unique wave that you have the honor of being with. And that is where I’ve personally come to find happiness. Because no matter which part of the wave I am meeting, I will be welcoming it and approaching it with a curiosity of what this particular experience will be like.
I invite you to find that “thing” in yourself. That which is not an emotion or a thought or even a character trait, but relates to all of them inside you. Happy just to have the chance to be here, to witness all of this. The part that will never change, because it has no specific character except for being there. And it will always be with you as long as you live.