Happiness

Happiness – Why this should not be our wellbeing goal

I realise and acknowledge that this headline may not grab you as something your want to read.  I would like to assure you from the outset that I am not against happiness or spreading joy. Happiness is great, I love being happy.  Ive also had long periods of time when I wasn’t.  

The reason I feel compelled to write about this is that its very easy to get caught up in the drive of positivity online thats working furiously to counteract the equally negative world.  The problem with both of these stances is that they stand at the extremes of the spectrum as polar opposites and life just isn’t like that.  Ask any acupuncturist.  Life needs Yin and Yang!  

In my working and personal lives I have encountered unhappiness that is driven by unavoidable circumstances.  Tragedy, mental illness, relationships, all examples of the obstacles life throws at us often without warning. Sometimes its all we can do to survive (see my post on thrive v survive). 

This blog is not intended to trash happiness but to raise our awareness of how it fits into our emotional health.  I believe this awareness can help us to achieve a better sense of wellbeing.

Happiness isn’t always a selfless and wholesome thing that makes the world a better place

Happiness means different things to different people.  A wellbeing professional will understand the wholesome messages they are trying to portray but in the modern world, driven by consumerism happiness as is frequently wrapped up with the acquisition of goods. 

There are other extremes too. For example, some people feel happiness when they are driving a vehicle at break neck speeds or from stealing other peoples possessions.

These are not really measures of happiness but examples of quick highs or easy fixes.  They are of short duration and need constantly replacing.  They demonstrate that happiness in itself is not an exclusively virtuous or wholesome pathway.  It is by no means an absolute right to feel happy if there is a cost to others.

Spreading happiness won’t help everyone to feel better

Its nice to read positive stories to motivate us to fill our lives with joy.  All over the world, thousands of people will feel the benefit and I’m not knocking this.

We should be aware though that there is another side.  For some people, happiness is simply not within their grasp.  Problems like repression, life events and mental illness can be absolute barriers to happiness. The problem with flooding their world with happiness is that it simply reinforces their unhappiness. We see this particularly at Christmas time, when our community feels an overwhelming pressure to feel joyful. Its well documented that those suffering from depression, loneliness or isolation will feel the effects particularly at this time of year.

Happiness is not a permanent state of mind

Happiness is one of many emotions human beings feel and express.  Because its the one that makes us feel good its natural to think that we should aim to feel like that all the time.  There are reasons this is flawed.

Firstly, its probably unachievable.  If someone is unhappy, no amount of tom foolery or coercion is going to make them happy.  Telling someone to be happy is far more likely to make them feel miserable.

Secondly, its not appropriate.  The human mind is adapted to feel and express several different emotions in response to the situations we find ourselves in. For example, we feel fear when faced with danger. This is entirely appropriate and triggers a hormonal response in our bodies that alters how we function in preparation for responding to the threat. The natural expression of a broad range of emotions is normal, healthy and part of living a well balanced life. It becomes a problem when these emotions cant be switched off or become overly expressed. Happiness is no different. It would be highly inappropriate to feel happy when faced with a dangerous situation or grief.

This all sounds a bit pedantic.  Aren’t you just playing with words?

Maybe but life is littered with arguments about words and language.  Humans are evolving intellectually very quickly and our language has developed enormously in recent years. The addition of new words into our vocabulary and the change in culture have affected how we interpret language. We have a duty to take care over the choice of words we use and at very least to discuss and rationalise how we interpret themes. This isn’t judging something as right or wrong, simply opening the opportunity to broaden our discussions and consider different perspectives. 

How else do we measure wellbeing if not through happiness

Lets be clear, I’m not saying we shouldn’t be happy or to spread positive news.  What I am saying is we should be respectful of the complexity of human emotion.  Not everyone strives to be or can be happy and we shouldn’t take it personally when people dont feel like smiling or joining in the fun.

People should express all emotions freely and appropriately without fear of judgement or ridicule and perhaps a more achievable goal for wellbeing is to embrace this. 

Working towards “happiness” is fundamentally flawed as a life goal.  I advocate a values based approach, working to the best of our ability to do what we feel is right and aligns with the person we truly want to be. This would include self compassion and compassion for others.  If we follow this path, happiness may reward us along the way but we will achieve an overall sense of contentment and personal wellbeing.  In my opinion this is a more wholesome, achievable and sustainable goal.

I’m sure people will disagree with me. This is what makes us develop as human beings and I welcome the variety of opinion that supports or contradicts my own. That is after all what keeps the conversation going and the human mind developing. I hope you have enjoyed reading this and if so, or if not, please comment.

2 thoughts on “Happiness – Why this should not be our wellbeing goal

  1. Vanessa Dias

    I agree with you and I will take the chance to comment that Positive Psychologists are usually misunderstood because of this positivity bias. Life and human experience are indeed made of yin and yang, light and shadow. Thought provoking post, thank you for sharing!

    Reply

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