The Happiness Dilemma

Lizza Gebilagin explains why we’ve gotten the pursuit of joy all wrong.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Lizza Gebilagin explains why we’ve gotten the pursuit of joy all wrong.

Corbis/Click Photos.
Corbis/Click Photos.

Sometimes, life bitch-slaps you with the sting of reality: that new job/car/relationship/ASOS splurge/business has not given you the never-ending high you were certain it had promised. The initial quiver of pleasure has left the familiar feeling of let-down in its wake, and now you’re on the search for a diff erent new job/car/relationship/ASOS splurge/ business that you absolutely know will fi nally make you happier.

At other times, life is kinder, and offers lessons in a less stinging way if we’re open to listening. Today, it’s this: we’ve got the idea of happiness all wrong. So wrong that going after this ideal is paradoxically making us unhappy. “The more that we chase happiness, the more elusive it becomes,” explains Dr Brock Bastian, an academic from the University of New South Wales who studies social norms for happiness.

“It has to do with the nature of goal pursuit. For example, if I’d like to be more intelligent, I may be disappointed at points along the way because I’m not as intelligent as I’d like to be, but it’s not going to disrupt my progression towards my goal,” explains Dr Brock. “In the case of making our happiness a goal, that disappointment becomes counterproductive and makes us less happy than if we hadn’t pursued it in the first place.”

What a dilemma. So if we stop trying to strive for this idea of ultimate happiness, is it still possible to live a happy, fulfilling life? The answer is definitely. And it all starts with getting the definition right.

Happiness is not a neverending high

The first thing you need to know about leading a happy life is that it doesn’t entail feeling and experiencing positivity in every single moment, minus confusing break-ups, stareat- the-wall boredom and big blow-ups with your boss. “The more we expect life to be one continuous pleasant experience, the more we fall down and the worse it becomes,” says Dr Brock. “We must ride those ups and downs in life, which are integral to our ability to be happy at all. So it’s not that we are happy in spite of these things, we’re happy because of them. That is what we have sorely missed in our understanding of happiness.”

Practitioner of Five Element Acupuncture Amanda Tanner completely agrees. “To only feel happiness is more pathological than to experience genuine happiness that comes from having a variety of emotions. If you force yourself to be happy when you’re sad, you not only exhaust yourself trying to stay happy but put off the inevitable sadness that builds over time. If you give yourself space to feel your sadness, know that joy will follow.” Amanda, who helps her clients feel and release these emotions using Five Element Acupuncture points, explains that the same goes for experiencing both anger and fear. “Being emotionally authentic allows us to be more present, and connect with others. We form deeper, much more satisfying, and therefore, overall happier relationships and more fulfilling lives.”

So if you did score that dream job, but now have a gnawing feeling because you’re not sure if you’re entirely in love with it, that’s OK. Forcing yourself to be elated at work will only cause you more anxiety, while accepting reality might actually help you to be content with the parts that are fulfilling. All leading to – yep, you guessed it – an overall happier existence.

Remember that happiness isn’t a goal

Humans do this weird thing where we overestimate how something will affect us in the future. This is why striving for a goal will never get you the lasting happiness you want. According to Professor Bill von Hippel from the University of Queensland’s School of Psychology: “We expect that important events like a promotion or a new purchase will make us much happier and much unhappier than they really do. We also expect these effects to last much longer.”

Elizabeth Horsley can testify to that. At 29, the recently-divorced Elizabeth was creating a new idea of her own happiness. She quickly built a multimillion dollar finance company that she hoped would provide for her and her two kids. It did. But she still wasn’t content. “I was using money to buy things to make me happy and that wasn’t where happiness was coming from. What actually made me happy was overcoming the challenges,” says Elizabeth, who outlines her struggles in her book Sex for Groceries. She now uses money to fuel her “living list” – an anti-bucket list that includes things like quality chats with loved ones and supporting artists. “Those are things that make me feel good to be alive; that’s where my happiness lies.”

Elizabeth touches on the difference between relying on something outside of ourselves (a better relationship, more money or a new job) for happiness versus finding meaning in life by being true to who we are. Even if that authenticity comes with a side of monthly PMS rage. “We should give up on trying to be happy,” explains Dr Brock. “Instead of filling life with pleasures, presumably so we all feel happier than we are, we should focus on meaningful and fruitful parts of our lives.”

Where does this leave us? “Do things that give your life purpose,” recommends Dr Brock, who suggests volunteering. Make a living list, like Elizabeth, to outline what fulfils you. And, lastly, share love with the people in your life. According to von Hippel, “The thing that makes us happy in the long term is good relationships. People understand that at some level, but don’t realise just how lasting these effects are; everything else returns to a baseline level of happiness, but good relationships can make you permanently happier.”