Let’s face it. Every time you turn around, you find new advice on being happy. Books promising to reveal the true secret of happiness. Blog posts telling you, “Write down three things that make you happy today.” Friends saying, “Move on!” and, “Cheer up!” after you’ve had a bad day.
And maybe you’re wondering… what’s wrong with that?
Happiness is a good thing right? Well, yes. Of course it is.
But we are being taught that our lives should be a straight and narrow path toward happiness.
We are taught that we should strive for happiness, and happiness alone in everything we do.
And that if we’re not always feeling happy, then something is terribly wrong.
The truth is, happiness should not be our only focus, and continuously striving for it, to the detriment of everything else, can actually cause us to make lots of mistakes. Here are seven such mistakes, and how to fix them:
1. We view setbacks and growing pains as failures.
When we actively pursue happiness, anything that makes us feel unhappy can seem like a failure – such as a simple setback or challenging moment – when in reality these things are unavoidable, normal parts of personal growth. Sometimes it’s just easier to feel depressed and trapped by these experiences and let them get the best of us.
Think about a time in your life when you faced a challenge. Maybe you lost your job, were betrayed by a friend, or got rejected by a loved one. How did you respond to this? Did you feel like a victim, or did you embrace it as an opportunity to grow as a person and learn something valuable?
If you’re like most people (including myself), you probably struggled to have a positive attitude at the time, and the situation was probably incredibly hard to deal with.
And the truth is, challenges are never easy.
However, setbacks and challenging moments in life are also opportunities in disguise for something bigger and better. If we can learn to appreciate and embrace them equally to the moments that make us feel happy, we can more easily see the light in our darkest moments, push through these difficult times and make the most of every opportunity to heal and grow.
2. We get addicted to short-term, quick fixes of pleasure.
In our impatience to find happiness, we often seek pleasure instead because it’s easier to achieve in the short-term.
This can cause us to rely on pleasurable experiences in an unhealthy way. For example, we might actually find ourselves feeling anxious if we don’t have anything to look forward to, such as an exciting vacation in the near future.
But relying on pleasurable experiences as a means to happiness will only leave us always wanting more – much like a drug where we become an addict to our next fix. Because pleasure is short lived and offers no sense of deep fulfillment.
“The pleasure-centered person, too soon bored with each succeeding level of “fun”, constantly cries for more and more. So the next new pleasure has to be bigger and better, more exciting, with a bigger “high.”
Long-lasting happiness is not found in quick doses of pleasure, but rather through meaningful experiences over time, such as nurturing a passion, overcoming hardships, learning new life skills, and making a difference by enriching the lives of others. (Read The How of Happiness.)
3. We neglect the amazing people around us.
Deliberately striving for happiness can also lead us to be self-centered – “I want happiness and I want it now!” – instead of achieving happiness over time through meaningful experiences and service to a greater cause.
In this case, where the focus is only on today’s must-have dose of happiness, we become more of a taker rather than a giver. We focus all of our attention on ourselves – me, me, me – so our immediate desires are more easily met, instead of considering new ways to make a rewarding, lasting difference in our lives and the lives around us. We prioritize our pursuit over all the people – family, friends and strangers – who need us.
The truth is, making a difference by giving to others is actually one of the greatest ways that we can find happiness. There is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up. It gives us a greater sense of meaning, purpose and fulfillment and often makes us feel much more content with our lives and who we are as individuals.
“If you want happiness for an hour – take a nap. If you want happiness for a day – go fishing. If you want happiness for a month – get married. If you want happiness for a year – inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime – help others.”
4. We let our expectations sap the joy out of genuine experiences.
Think about a time when you were looking forward to something. Maybe it was as simple as a nice walk on the beach with your partner, or perhaps a vacation you had been planning.
When the time finally came, did you find yourself getting completely lost in the experience and having a great time, or were you scatter-brained with expectations of how the experience was “supposed to be,” and thus subconsciously feeling somewhat disappointed?
Too often we become so determined to feel happy in a certain way, that we end up focusing too much on whether an experience is meeting our expectations.
But studies show that people who do certain activities with a specific set of expectations, or who monitor how much they are enjoying themselves every step of the way, end up actually enjoying themselves less than those who simply let go and focus on immersing themselves in the experience.
Rather than striving for happiness through the expectation of how things should be, try to accept whatever experiences come your way. That way, you’ll be able to appreciate and more easily notice all the positive things around you as opposed to feeling disappointed when things don’t measure up to fantasies.
5. We give up amazing opportunities that require temporary discomfort.
Think about a time in your life when you went through a tough but rewarding experience.
Perhaps you took on a challenging project. Do you remember feeling a great sense of anxiety telling you that you would fail, but you didn’t?
And as a result, not only did you achieve something amazing, you also opened up an array of new opportunities for yourself, became a little bit wiser, and gained a greater sense of self-confidence.
Well, it just shows us that if we want to discover new and interesting opportunities in life, it’s not possible to feel happy every moment along the way. A little discomfort is necessary medicine. As they say, opportunity is missed by most people simply because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like hard work. Don’t be one of these people. (Read The Last Lecture.)
6. We look for happiness in the wrong places.
A 24/7 obsession with finding happiness can cause us to focus on the wrong things, because we’re often poor judges of what will make us happy.
For example, we might think that buying a new house, being popular and having a certain amount of money will make us happy, so we strive relentlessly for them, but in reality, when we finally get these things, we still feel like something is missing.
It’s the old “I’ll be happy when I’ve got X” syndrome. Except when you get X, you realize it’s not everything you expected. It never is.
Does this sound familiar to you?
Perhaps it’s because we are constantly being sent messages from society and popular media telling us that X, Y & Z will make us happy. We hear, “If you’re slim you’ll be happy,” or, “If you have the latest technology you’ll be happy,” or, “If you’re rich or popular you’ll be happy.” And because we’re so obsessed with finding happiness, we buy into it.
The truth is, these things don’t lead to a deep sense of happiness, and we’re often poor judges by believing they will. True happiness comes from within yourself, not from something or someone else. Don’t make the mistake of waiting on something or someone to come along and make you happy.
7. We tie our happiness to the futile idea of perfection.
Oftentimes, when we strive for happiness, what we are really aiming for is to feel perfect.
But perfection is an illusion.
We are beautifully imperfect beings, operating in a very imperfect world, and that is just the way it’s meant to be. Striving for perfection is a hollow goal, one that can never be achieved.
Society shows us doctored images of perfection constantly in marketing and popular media. Do not buy into this illusion; it will only lead you into darkness. Embrace your quirks, your flaws and the fact that life is a roller coaster at times. Strive for excellence, have high standards… but never confuse that with the crippling behavior of perfectionism.
Rather than striving to be perfect, embrace and appreciate all the beautiful, natural imperfections of life, and use these things to grow stronger, wiser, and more whole as an individual. (Marc and Angel discuss this in detail in the “Self-Love” chapter of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)
The secret to a fulfilling life is wholeness, not happiness
Pursuing wholeness comes down to accepting and embracing all aspects of life – sadness, frustration, pain, failure and happiness, as well as realizing that all these things are equally as important for a balanced, fulfilling and truly happy experience.
It’s about understanding that life is not just a bowl of cherries, and that in order to grow and learn, we rely on the harsh realities of life.
In fact, even though it’s hard, we need to be grateful for these things.
Rather than trying to hide from adversities, we need to embrace them…
Because we know that they will make us stronger, more passionate, motivated, versatile, confident, resilient, capable and ultimately more whole as individuals – as well as adding more meaning and deeper fulfillment to our lives.
“Everyone says we grow through pain and as soon as they experience it they say, ‘Quick! Move on! Cheer up!’ Wholeness is what we ought to be striving for and part of that is sadness, disappointment, frustration, failure; all those things which make us who we are.”
How to strive for wholeness
In order to get the most out of your pursuit for wholeness, the following are some key things to do in your daily life:
Embrace rather than avoid life’s adversities. Laugh at your mistakes and learn from them. Joke about your troubles and gather strength from them. Have fun with the challenges you face and then conquer them.
Rather than shutting out or suppressing negative emotions, allow yourself to really feel them, so you can deal with them. Take full, unhindered control of your emotions, so your emotions do not control you behind your back.
Find peace with yourself and your past. Rather than remaining angry or hurt throughout your life, choose to forgive yourself and others, and try to actually appreciate the experiences for what they have taught you.
Proactively identify knowledge gaps in your life experience and take steps to fill them, even if it requires you to stretch your comfort zone.
Shift some of your attention away from what you want, and refocus it on what others need.
Will you choose wholeness over happiness?
When you choose to actively seek wholeness, your life will feel much more fulfilling.
You will feel more satisfied and happy with your life, because rather than feeling burdened by life’s challenges, you will be on a constant journey of growth and discovery. Everything, good or bad, will move you forward.
Instead of feeling like a victim in life, you will be able to appreciate and value everything that comes your way. After all, you’re not a victim. You’re a strong human being. You have an interesting life, and it is magnificent. Keep this in mind, and live it accordingly.
And while you’re out there doing your thing, you will also learn to love, accept and understand yourself better as you learn to overcome the brokenness inside you.
I challenge you to choose wholeness from today onward.
The next time you feel sad or disappointed, don’t try to shut it out or distract yourself from it. Instead, accept it as who you are, be okay with it and allow it to add new layers of understanding and awareness to your life.