Maybe You’re Unhappy Because You’re Trying to Be Happy

Stop chasing this fleeting emotional state


IfIf I spend a day with this person I love, I’ll feel happy. If I write something I’m truly proud of, I’ll feel happy. If I come up with a useful idea at work, if I finish a hard workout, if I watch my all-time favorite TV show, I’ll feel happy.

Look, feeling happy is a great thing. But it’s also a fleeting emotional state, and actively chasing it can be both a trap and a dangerous game.

There’s plenty of research suggesting that the more aggressively people pursue happiness, the unhappier they end up. In a 2013 paper titled “The Paradoxical Effects of Pursuing Positive Emotion,” psychologists Brett Q. Ford and Iris B. Mauss highlighted several of those studies; in one of them, for example, the authors told some participants to make themselves feel as happy as possible while listening to a certain song, and other simply to listen to the music. At the end of the experiment, those who were given a happiness goal reported worsened moods.

The problem with pursuing happiness is that we’re constantly moving the goalposts for how we expect to feel. As Ford and Mauss write: “Those pursuing happiness may set high standards for their levels of happiness. When their happiness falls short of their standards — which is likely when the standards are high — the resulting disappointment and frustration impedes the experience of happiness.”

So what should you do instead of trying to feel happy? Build a life you’re in control of. Focus on your well-being. Establish goals and work toward them. And, most importantly, prioritize achieving the freedom that lets you do all these things.

If you’re unhappy, shaking things up with a different job or a new city is not the answer. You can travel to every country in the world, but your problems will follow you. If you live below your potential, give up, and never reach for anything better, you will always be miserable.

To create a meaningful life, you might have to do some things that might make you unhappy — or at least uncomfortable — in the short term. Two years ago, a friend of mine complained a lot about his work situation. He had no time for his family, or the hobbies he enjoyed.

But then he made some hard decisions: He stopped spending time with certain co-workers. He learned to say no to impromptu invitations to “hang out.” He prioritized his family and health. He created a schedule that allowed him to drop his kids off at school and come home for lunch.

In other words, he identified what was most important to him, and he cut out the things that were getting in the way. His life still isn’t perfect, and he’s not necessarily “happy” all the time, but he created goals and worked toward gaining the freedom to achieve them.

No one is immune to feeling unhappy at times. But time moves in one direction, and unhappy moments pass. This is also true for good times. Everything you do, feel, or experience is temporary.

So instead of chasing happiness, commit to making your world better, more whole. You get a new chance every hour and day. In the Netherlands, we have a saying: “After rain comes sunshine.” It’s a reminder that the good will come, in its own time. Once you accept this, you can finally be free of trying to change how you feel in any particular moment of your great big life.

Creator of the Stoic Letter (new letter comes out every Friday) | My online course, Wealth Strategies, is now free:

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