Forget the pursuit of happiness
You’ll enjoy life more if you stop trying to feel good all the time.
It’s 10 am, and I’m eating a croissant at a Starbucks in a different city. Again. Working on my laptop. In my mobile office. The millennial’s wet American dream. I should be happy, but I’d rather be on a hiking trip.
That’s the problem. For the last ten years, I’ve told myself I should be happy. This strategy hasn’t worked yet. Just makes me feel guilty.
Not being happy. Even though I should be.
Everyone wants that warm, fuzzy buzz. We add “happiness” to our shopping cart every single day. Jobs. Kids. Marriage. Mortgage. Money. Vacations. And yet the buzz never comes for some of us.
I’ve tried everything I thought would make me happy. Something always feels off. But it’s not like I would change anything. There’s nothing lacking in my life. Not even that sense of freedom from social expectations. I’ve always done what I wanted. Or felt compelled to.
Happiness is a glitch. Anyone can feel happy at any time for any reason. Without even trying. Same goes for unhappiness. So maybe we shouldn’t let it influence our decisions too much.
Happiness likes to elude us.
You can chase happiness, but you can’t ever catch it. We’re like cats pawing the red laser dot. We don’t understand where the dot comes from, or why we can’t touch it. We keep trying.
Some people pretend they’ve caught the red dot. They’ll show you how. But they’re lying. Here’s the truth. There is no dot.
I’ve tried to catch the dot. The buzz. It comes without warning. Never stays long. When it leaves, I might feel worse than before.
The absence of the buzz doesn’t automatically mean you screwed up. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with your life. Or at least not with you.
Except maybe your notion of happiness. Stop trying to put it in your shopping cart. Happiness doesn’t work that way.
So far we’ve talked about happiness like an Amazon product. A red dot. A buzz. Welcome to the metaphor salad.
You can’t subscribe to happiness.
Most of us have grown up consuming media that tells us exactly what happiness should look like. You’re supposed to dance in a cornfield on a Sunday afternoon. Whip your hair around. Laugh for no reason. You should spend a lot of time smiling at clouds.
Basically, act like you’re in a lifestyle commercial.
If that’s too hard, try faking a care-free attitude about everything. Ignore your problems. Say Buddhist prayers for people who cut you off in traffic. Drink green ice tea in a hammock, while listening to Bobby McFerrin. Don’t worry, be happy.
Sign up for the happiness newsletter. You’ll receive a daily dose of cat GIFs and memes. Inspirational photographs. And quotations from Elon Musk and Ghandi. Act now and we’ll send you skinny jeans that fit, and a facial mask that contorts your cheeks into a permanent smile.
Because smiling releases serotonin. Smiling all the time will keep your brain flooded with happiness-inducing chemicals.
They say acting happy makes you happy. Maybe for some people. I’ve tried, and it just makes me tired.
So I’ve unsubscribed from the happiness newsletter. I’ll find my own cat videos and inspirational quotes.
Define happiness for yourself.
Lately, I’ve caught myself throwing around the word “happiness.” The smart part of me thinks I should shut up. Happy is a strange word. You can define it a hundred different ways.
If you’re weird, like me, you may never achieve the kind of happiness you see in lifestyle magazines. The kind that involves campfires on the beach. Coffee shops where you’re the only person allowed inside. Vacations with your best friends from college. Birthday parties in your back yard.
You’ve got to re-brand happiness. Make it your own. Stop listening to everyone else. Instead, focus on states of mind that make sense to you. Ones you can define. That’s what I’m trying to do.
Find purpose, not happiness
You’ll always feel like shit at some point in the day. Tired. Irritated. Disappointed. Bored — like when a tedious task lies ahead. No matter how bad it gets, I always feel a sense of purpose. Doing something that matters.
Sometimes a hundred people might count on me. Others, only one. Still, there’s always a voice in my head that says, “You have to do X.” And when I do X, it feels good.
On the worst days, I can still remind myself that my job matters. College students need reading and writing skills. You think they can’t spell now. Imagine a world without me — the college English teacher.
So find purpose in your life. Understand what you feel compelled or obligated to do. Know what you’re good at. And why. And then do it. Purpose doesn’t make me feel like dancing in the rain. But I could definitely manage a thumbs up. Maybe even a firm high-five. Under an umbrella.
You can get satisfaction.
Satisfaction’s easier to pin down. We know it doesn’t hang around forever, so we don’t feel so bad when it leaves.
It might come from a sense of accomplishment. Closure. Validation. Progress toward a goal.
I’m satisfied every time I finish grading papers. That never feels like a waste of time. No matter how many comma splices I catch. I also feel satisfied after a nice espresso, or a good night’s sleep.
It’s a lot easier to do something every day that brings satisfaction. We know what that looks like, and how to obtain it. Save happiness for later.
You can enjoy pleasure.
That’s one of the easiest. We come pre-programmed with ways to find pleasure. A happy life has to involve pleasure at some point. Sex. Chocolate. Booze. Just a few examples.
You probably already know what pleasures to avoid. Heroin probably feels good. But addiction doesn’t.
Naps bring pleasure. They’re slightly less addictive, too.
We deny ourselves pleasures all the time. Like somehow watching less TV brings us closer to some goal.
A handful of people in my PhD program stopped going to movies. They took some kind of vow to avoid parties, even the occasional beer. They threw themselves into their work and never took a break.
My friends thought I did the same thing. They were wrong. Sure, I worked harder than most. But I also watched TV every day. Gasp. In the end, the ones who gave up pleasure burned out. Never finished.
Stop chasing after happiness like it’s some kind of destination resort. You can’t get there directly. Only by accident. Just find your purpose. Cut out as many irritants as you can. And try to do things you enjoy. Everyone will think you’ve found happiness, and then you can blow their minds by saying something profound — like happiness is a red dot, and we’re all cats. They won’t look at you funny at all. Promise.