Besides Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh, I can’t think of very many people who enjoy being unhappy. Most of us strive for the opposite which isn’t always an easy thing considering that the nature of emotions is to change. Sometimes we’re happy, sometimes sad, sometimes angry and sometimes stressed. The pressure that we put on ourselves to be happy, according to some psychologists, is actually contributing to a sense of dissatisfaction and well, unhappiness. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
The Happiness Revolution
In the past decade, the emphasis on finding happiness has grown exponentially. It’s easy to see why. The percentage of Americans with major depressive episodes is really high and growing. An estimated 16.2 million adults in the United States had at least one major depressive episode. This number represented 6.7 percent of all U.S. adults. In all, 11 percent of adults ages 18-25 experience depression at one time or another, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health. It’s not a pretty picture.
In reaction, a revolution of psychology based on finding happiness has sprung up. With books like the “Happiness Revolution,” “The Geography of Bliss,” “The Art of Happiness,” and “Stumbling on Happiness,” we’re doing everything we can to find something that we think is missing. There’s even a magazine called Living Happy. But for many, chasing happiness isn’t making the problem any better. In fact, it could be making it worse.
Why Does Chasing Happiness Makes You Unhappy?
A study published in the journal Emotion found that striving for happiness makes it less likely that you will be happy and makes for more feelings of failure.
“The problem is it’s impossible to be happy all the time.”
According to the authors, “the findings suggest an overpromotion of happiness, and, in turn, the felt social pressure not to experience negative emotional states.”
“The problem is it’s impossible to be happy all the time. Life is 50 percent happiness and 50 percent moments that don’t go your way, disappointment and surprises. When you aim for happiness you fail half the time,” says Dahlia Rizk of Choices Counseling of Londonderry.
Jealousy and greed are two emotions that tend to make us unhappy. And when we’re chasing happiness, even though it’s an innately positive thing, we’re still chasing after something that we don’t yet feel we have. Just like we’re greedy for a new car we don’t have, the same is true of a feeling that we’re striving for. We can also become jealous of those we feel are happier than us.
Part of it is a misunderstanding of what happiness really is. Happiness is not the absence of bad emotions. Happy people can also have times of sadness, anger, and even jealousy. Emotions are constantly changing and without sadness, it would be difficult to understand what its opposite, happiness, feels like. In fact, other studies, like this one published in the Journal of Neuroscience have shown that experiencing negative emotions can help you find happiness because you’re better able to process emotions.
We all avoid our emotions in different ways.
How to Find Happiness Without Chasing It
Labeling emotions as good or bad make it more likely that you’ll have an aversion to negative emotions like sadness and do everything you can to avoid them. We all avoid our emotions in different ways, whether it’s having a third glass of wine, eating that chocolate cake, or a drug of choice. Some people take healthier steps to avoid unhappiness like doing yoga or going for a run but in the end, even good behaviors can be an avenue of avoidance. Happiness is the ability to sit with emotions—the good, the bad, and the ugly—without reacting to them. It’s feeling emotions and learning to process them rather than running away from them.
Additionally, success follows happiness, not the other way around. That means choosing something that you love to do and doing it as best you can make you much happier than doing something that you hate in the hopes that becoming rich and famous will bring you happiness. It’s no surprise to say that it won’t, yet so many of us think we’re somehow different.
Positive psychologists tend to agree that mindfulness also has a positive impact on happiness. Additionally, says Clinical psychologist Mikhail Vladimirskiy, “live consistently with one’s own goals and values. Treasure friendship and family, deep relations, find a work that brings satisfaction. That means leaving fully all moments of one’s life, painful ones not excluded… and sometimes find moments or periods of happiness in the process.”
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