I sat across from him at the restaurant. His eyes were kind, and he had a clever smile that hinted at both mischief and innocence; a rarity in the dating world. I’d met him before and had chatted with him a bit. On this particular day, though, he said something that hit me strangely.
“More than anything, I just want to make you happy,” he said.
I felt my head cock like a confused and amused dog, tilting towards his words.
“That’s a really strange thing to wish for someone like me!” I blurted out.
And while I knew he took my comment as sardonic and charmingly self-deprecating, I followed that thought down the rabbit hole. I was honestly flabbergasted that the desired impact someone would want to have in my life was happiness.
It hadn’t fully hit me until that conversation that I truly didn’t believe in happiness. At least not as an end goal. As someone who’d spent years exploring the world of emotions and the full spectrum of the human experience, happiness was but a blip on my radar. Just one of the emotions I could experience in my lifetime. And a fleeting one, at that.
As I tried to explain why happiness might not be the best wish for an emotionally sensitive being, he continued to attempt to bring the conversation back to focusing on the positive and the light, trying to make me smile instead of delving further into the depths of my feelings. It was in that moment that I wondered if his focus on happiness was working for him, or if maybe that drive to be happy was distracting him from the fuller emotional experience underneath, and therefore keeping him from actually being happy.
And I wondered: what if wanting to be happy is what’s actually making you sadder?
Here are my three reasons why this may be the case:
1. Happiness is fleeting, so you will always be chasing it.
Happiness is an emotion, and emotions are constantly in a state of flux. They move and change easily and swiftly. They ebb and flow like the tides. To try to control them is like trying to control nature. We may be able to predict the changes, but we cannot control them. If you commit yourself to the attainment of happiness, you will forever be on your guard, waiting for happiness to creep in, and then terrified of the moments you feel it and fear its departure. Either way, it’s much more difficult to be truly present with happiness if you are narrowly focused on it.
2. If you’re focused on attaining happiness, you are missing out on all your other emotions.
If you are constantly categorizing your experiences as either contributing to your happiness or not contributing to your happiness, you will undoubtedly toss at least half of your experiences out without even exploring them. Who decided that happiness was the best emotion anyways? Sure, it’s great to feel light and joyful, but we can’t demonize all our other emotions when they don’t have the same effect. A lot of the key experiences that shape your life are the gritty ones. The ones where you experienced heartbreak, or longing, or loss. And it’s not that you have to wish for these feelings, but if you allow yourself to embrace them when they arrive (instead of being upset that they’re not happiness), you’re allowing yourself to embrace the whole of your existence. You’re allowing yourself to receive the gifts, the wisdom, in the more difficult emotions. Not only will you feel like you’re living a fuller and more meaningful life, but it will make those happy moments even sweeter, because you can appreciate the contrast. Plus, the most interesting people are the ones who have openly gone through some tough stuff. We love these stories the most, because as storytellers and story receivers, we know that growth and stimulation often happens in the drama, in the unhappiness.
3. When you are so focused on trying to be happy, you are setting yourself up for shame and guilt when you inevitably cannot reach your imagined goals.
In wanting to be happy, you can then feel guilty for not being so, which actually makes you less happy altogether, not more. In those moments, your positive thinking crashes into negative self-talk like “What is wrong with me that I’m not happy?” or “Do I not deserve happiness?” There are certainly moments where positive thinking dramatically increases your happiness, but you have to be aware of the moments where these collisions occur, which create a dissonance in your thinking that creates even more obstacles to your desired outcome. The shame and guilt we put on ourselves in these collisions can be really hard to overcome, so let’s take away any reason why we would add more to our lives.
I don’t think my date really understood my stance on happiness, but I was grateful for the opportunity to validate my own feelings and give importance to all my life experiences, not just the ones that made me happy. There are so many interesting and juicy emotions to experience aside from happiness: righteous rage, heartbreak, bittersweet nostalgia, grief. All with their own lesson, their own wisdom to share. And while it may not be wise to reach for happiness exclusively for these three reasons, you can still create a sustainable emotional life with a foundation of contentment and acceptance, which will welcome those blissful, happy periods in with love and with the knowledge that every feeling you have is a treasured one.
Ora North is an empath and healer who grew tired of the “love and light” scene. She felt a lack of authenticity in the new age movement and turned to emotional shadow work instead. In her shadow, North discovered a more authentic, integrative way to be a spiritual being. Now she works with other empaths, guiding them to explore their own shadows on the path to wholeness.