The Pursuit of Happiness is a Trap

I sometimes find myself telling my clients, “I am not trying to help you feel happy.” I don’t say this because I am callus, I say it because I see the hunt for happiness as a trap. The pursuit of happiness is an empty promise. Happiness is nothing if not fleeting, and this is as it should be. We can only identify pleasure in contrast to pain. Constant happiness would just dull to a mellow neutral over time, leaving you grasping for the next hit of pleasure. Humans are amazing at getting used to things, and if you really could somehow constantly be in situations that make you happy all the time, you would just get used to it and no longer feel happy. I see this all the time in parents who have given their kids everything they could ever want and are surprised when their children are depressed, angry, or entitled. This is why the pursuit of meaning is the goal we ought to be shooting for, not the pursuit of happiness. Unlike happiness, meaning provides a lens through which we can live with purpose, no matter what emotions we are experiencing at the time. 

At first life whispers it’s lessons. When you don’t listen, life shouts until you heed the message. 

It is a truism in my field that everyone gets ample opportunities to grow, and that these opportunities tend to start subtly and become more and more dramatic with repetition. In my years as a psychologist I have been with people going through deeply painful challenges, incredibly pleasurable experiences, and everything in between. The people that seem to thrive despite life’s challenges find some way to make meaning of all that life throws their way. We notice together the themes and lessons hidden in their experiences and we work to integrate them into their life. I bear witness as the same themes circle through a person’s life repeatedly. The experience may be difficult, or it may feel enjoyable, but the pattern remains. I observe that the people who listen and seek to understand the themes and lessons in their life and to make meaning from their experiences tend to make progress and keep growing. The themes don’t disappear, but they tend to get less disruptive. The people who struggle to engage in this work continue having the ignored lesson offered to them over and over again, in more and more intense ways. This isn’t necessarily bad, it just is. We all get the opportunities we need to learn what life has to teach us. 

Pain is a powerful teacher. There is an important difference between pain and suffering. Pain is an unavoidable part of life. To be clear, no one “deserves” to be put in pain and pain is certainly not evenly distributed in the world.  However, pain is present in every person’s life. Suffering is the distress we feel about pain. We suffer when we rail against the pain in our life rather than accepting it as part of life. When we stop resisting pain and instead welcome the opportunity to grow that which is inherent in pain, we can create meaning from even the hardest experiences.

For example, when I fall, I feel pain. That part is unavoidable. Suffering comes in how I respond to the pain. When I fall down and say to myself, “This keeps happening to me! I am a total klutz. Nothing ever goes my way. My day is going down the drain, I might as well just get back into bed and give up!” That is suffering. If instead I accept that pain is part of life and instead of railing against the pain, I become curious about what if anything I can learn from the experience, a whole new world opens up. I fall and I experience pain. As I’m reflecting on the fall, I notice the pain and I become curious about what is going on for me in this experience. I step back from the moment and notice that several times in the last few days I’ve tripped or stumbled or dropped things. I become curious about that as well. I pull back from the experience further and notice that I have been putting a lot of pressure on myself lately to be perfect and to perform at a high level at work. I begin to wonder if there is a connection between my body stumbling and the way I’m feeling at work. This exploration continues and perhaps I see something I need to change, or perhaps I notice that I am feeling a lot of stress and acknowledge that when I am under stress one way it shows up is in my balance. I learn that my body has a pattern of signaling its stress level. I may think of other times in my life where I’ve been under stress and notice a pattern of working myself incredibly hard until I get injured, and then feeling I have “permission” to take a break. I wonder then if there could be a different way to balance my stress level that doesn’t involve injury. There is no one path this exploration can or should take. The point is engaging curiosity and being open to finding lessons and meaning in every experience.

It’s never too late to engage in meaning-making 

Perhaps I fell into the suffering path at first. I went down the “This keeps happening to me! I am a total klutz. Nothing ever goes my way. My day is going down the drain fast, I might as well just get back into bed and give up!” path. At any point I can change course. I could come into therapy later that week and recount the tale of woe of me falling and how awful my day was. My therapist then has an opportunity to invite me back to the path of meaning-making. She will empathize with me and make space for what I am feeling, and gently offer an opportunity to become curious about the experience. She may help me pull back from the experience and think about it from father away. From a distance it is often easier to see the potential lessons in a painful experience. With her help I am likely to make the connection between the stress I am feeling at work and my recent stumbling. She may help me to become more curious about when this pattern began and when it may have happened in the past. She can help me find my way to accepting the pain and looking for meaning in every experience. 

So much of this work is about learning to listen to your own life. You do not need to find a wise teacher and sit at their feet to learn the lessons of life. Each of us are given opportunities each day to find meaning and learn from life. Our task is to accept pain, challenge suffering, and become curious about what pain can teach us, and that is what I do as a therapist.