These are common statements that people give to explain why they decided to engage in therapy. We all love to be happy. There have been popular songs such as “Happy” by Pharell Williams. It’s a catchy tune. In past decades, other songs such as “Don’t worry, be happy” by Bobby McPherin was an instant hit. The lyrics capture our desire to be in a happy state.
We crave being happy. In fact, we often can’t stand it and feel unfairly treated if we have too many incidents that create despair. Is there anything wrong with wanting happiness? No and yes. Happiness is one of many human emotions. We are empathic beings capable of mirroring and relating to others in a wide array of emotional states. Our emotional landscape shifts and changes with the influence of our thoughts, our attitudes, our behaviours, and the actions of others. Our emotions can be influenced by the mind body connection and whether we are ill or healthy, whether we feel resilient or our energy has been spent.
It would be a shallow existence to feel only happiness about all life events. Although we try to avoid and push away the emotions that feel negative such as sadness, sorrow or anger, many life events require these as an appropriate response and emotional state. For example, empathizing with a friend who has lost a parent. Shared sorrow and grief is what a grieving person needs rather than a Pollyanna response to the loss of someone important. Walking through grief is good for us. It makes us deeper and richer. Passing through grief is the only way to really work through it and come out stronger on the other side. It changes us. This cannot happen without experiencing some heaviness of emotion. Laughter and lightness can coexist with grief, but a sense of 100% complete happiness cannot be the appropriate way to face difficult life situations.
Is it okay to chase happiness? Perhaps it is like chasing a rainbow. There are many articles and books written on happiness. Some of these have gone on to become bestsellers. Perhaps it is our culture’s obsession. We have statements such as “money can’t buy you happiness”. Perhaps we even miss moments every day, glimpses of happiness and joy, because we are trying to achieve an overall state of persistent happiness that we think others already possess.
Social media has played a part in helping us to make immediate and ongoing comparisons of our personal situations with those of our “500 Facebook friends”. We can see who has had the most active social life, the new car, the fun in the sun vacation, the new baby, new relationship or perfect looking children. Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, and other social media feed us continual comparative data on how our lives and emotional states measure up to others. The only catch is that the information is typically biased toward the positive, giving a skewed perspective on the real and actual lives of others.
Advertising also bombards us with the latest items for purchase or experiences to be savoured that come with a price tag. Generally, no one in the ads looks unhappy. The message is always that if you purchase the product, it will add to your overall sense of happiness and fulfillment in life. No wonder we chase happiness. It looks to us as though everyone else is already in possession of it, that if only we had enough money we could purchase items or experiences that create “open happiness”. Rather than chasing happiness, maybe noticing glimpses of it as it naturally occurs, and enjoying those moments, is more realistic and less likely to lead to frustration.
Maybe doing something kind for someone else, and noticing their happiness is likely to spark our own. Being able to tolerate the more negative spectrum of emotion, to sit with a feeling of anger or sadness without pushing it off or wishing it away, allows depth and maturity to grow. Anger, sadness, sorrow, and frustration also have lessons to teach us.
There are many “how to” articles and books on cultivating happiness, but maybe the chasing of it and trying to harness it is like trying to grasp water that runs through our fingers. Rather than chasing, to acknowledge that happiness comes and goes, to enjoy it when it appears, and to allow ourselves to sit with other less wanted emotional states might just assist us to become deeper, richer, and more resilient.