Why Wanting to "Just be Happy" Makes Us Unhappy

It makes perfect sense why we say “I just want to be happy,” especially if our faith is changing and we realize the things we had been taught were “true” or “good” don’t really “make me happy”. When we are questioning everything we’d been told we should want, we need to learn to trust ourselves. And what better thing to trust than our own happiness?

Problematically, research seems to indicate that setting happiness as a life-goal doesn’t actually result in much happiness.

If you’ve ever been asked to *not* think about something (like a polar bear, or pornography) then you have experienced “ironic processing”, whereby deliberate attempts to not think about something actually bring those things to mind more often.

Having the goal “to be happy” works in a similar “ironic processing” fashion. The more we check in to see if we are reaching our goal, the more unhappy we start to feel.

When people are asked what a happy life would look like, they want low anxiety and no pain and no threats to our physical or emotional well-being. That sounds lovely. That sounds happy.

Problematically, happiness is an ephemeral emotion. It isn’t something we can “ just be”. We feel happy when we are holding our loved ones, or we hear children laughing, when we fall in love, or we accomplish a long-pursued goal. Happiness is not sticky, we can’t trap it or save it or package it. It comes and goes. Just like pain. While we certainly can organize our lives in a manner that opens up more opportunities for experiencing happiness, we will (obviously) still feel anxiety, pain, loss, sorrow, loneliness, depression, and disappointment.

And to make this goal of happiness even more problematic, our brains are programed to pay closest attention to exact things we associate with “unhappiness”. We need to pay immediate attention to pain (take your hand off the hot stove right now), and we constantly scan our environment for threats (unfamiliar noises, sights, smells grab our attention instantly and we feel uneasy), whereas, it’s pretty easy to get caught up in regular stuff and not even notice when everything's going right. Anxiety is much more likely to rise into our conscious awareness than calmness. So basically, the times when you are most likely to check in to the question “Am I happy?” are the times when you are most likely to be feeling some kind of pain or anxiety.

In addition, we tend to weight negative/painful experiences far more heavily than positive ones. You’ve probably heard of the 10 to 1 ratio? For instance, in our interactions with our children or partner we need to experience 10 “positive” things to have the same impact as 1 “negative” thing. This same weighting principle applies across many different types of experiences.

What this means is that if our life-goal is “to be happy” then when we experience the unavoidable pitfalls and pains of life, we check in with our goal “Am I happy?” and find that we have failed. We then weigh this moment of painful awareness as ten-times more important than all of the things that bring us joy.

And if all of that isn’t enough, it turns out that many of us may not actually really want “to be happy” after all. What?

Ask yourself this: If you could plug yourself into Matrix-like machine and program in a “life of happiness,” a life where you experience no pain, no anxiety, no threats to your emotional or physical well-being, would you plug in? The vast majority of people say no. But why not, if what we want is happiness and we define happiness as a lack of painful experiences? It seems we really want something deeper than “happiness”.

So what is this deeper thing? That is both easy and impossible to answer . . .

for most people if we go into our heart of hearts, to the things in life that feel most powerful and meaningful, those deeper goals usually have something to do with love, connection, being uplifted by making life better for those around us.

And thus we find the final irony of happiness-- easy contentment does not, can not, teach us love, kindness, connection, and empathy. Loneliness, loss, rejection, longing, tragedy, and failure are where we learn the vulnerability to love deeply. You have to look no further than the the chills that run through you as you see people connecting arm in arm to save someone from flood waters to know that it is in tragedy that we experience the deepest most authentic connection and can make life more wonderful for each other.

But what does that looks like for you, dear reader? How do you turn that vague idea about love-stuff-and-connection into a meaningful life that feels authentic and fulfilling and opens up many opportunities to enjoy fleeting momentary feelings of happiness?

Only you have the real answers to that.

But research does offer some clues. People who report high levels of life-satisfaction do have certain loosely related themes present in their lives:

  • A Sense of Purpose: prosocial goals to make life more wonderful

  • Triumphant storytelling: seeing the growth that comes from pain

  • Self-compassion: taking your own needs and other’s needs seriously

  • Mindfulness: awareness and acceptance of what is

  • Experiences of Transcendence: places, experiences, goals, that uplift and inspire

  • A Sense of Belonging: people who care, roles to fulfill, acceptance, mutual positive regard, intimacy

What are your thoughts about "the pursuit of happiness?"

Lisa Butterworth, LPC, NCC has a masters degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Idaho State University, primarily working with issues of relational health, faith transitions and journeys, women's issues and sexuality. ​She is the founder of the popular Feminist Mormon Housewives website and support group.

Featured Posts