Is Our Obsession With Happiness Making Us Less Happy?

by Christine Organ
takasu / Shutterstock

Choose happiness. I just want to my children to be happy. Follow your passion. Bloom where you’re planted.

I’ve said these things. You’ve said them. We’ve all said them. Or something close to them.

Happiness is at a premium these days. Just one look at the self-help aisle in a bookstore or my social media feed, and you’d think that happiness would unlock a hidden door to eternal bliss with an endless supply of chocolate, coffee, and wine. Happiness, we are told, is the Holy Grail of our human existence.

But even though happiness is shoved down our throats in nearly every aspect of our lives, research shows that the quest for happiness — not to mention forcing ourselves to choose happiness, follow our passion, and find our bliss, all with a smile on our face — is ironically making us less happy. Buying a new pair of boots might make us happier than struggling to help our child with third-grade math homework, but that doesn’t mean it’s more fulfilling.

Striving for a life of meaning, on the other hand, often leads to deeper and longer-lasting life satisfaction. According to New York magazine, research “shows that the happy life and the meaningful life differ — and that the surest path to true happiness lies in chasing not just happiness but also a meaningful life.”

Happiness tends to be a fleeting, temporary emotion that is oftentimes highly dependent on external factors, but meaning, on the other hand, tends to instill a sense of purpose, direction, and contentment. What’s more, the quest for happiness and forcing ourselves to “just be happy” when we are anything but happy, can actually make us feel pretty miserable by creating one more “standard” to which we are measuring ourselves and, thereby, falling short.

I firmly believe that attitude is everything and a positive outlook can go a long way in surviving shitty situations. Seeing the glass as half-full is generally healthier than a glass-half-empty outlook. I’m also a firm believer in the power of simple pleasures and tiny joys, like finishing a cup of coffee before it gets cold or binging on cookie dough while watching This Is Us. And truth be told, I consider myself to be a happy person — most of the time, anyway.

But there are times when the glass isn’t half-full or half-empty, but damn near bone-dry, and there’s only so much of a suck-it-up, slap-on-a-smile, polish-this-awful-turd mentality a person can take. Sometimes life just sucks. Sometimes we’re pissed and unhappy. Sometimes the cards seemed stacked against us, and giving ourselves permission to wallow, vent, or lose our shit for a minute cleanses the soul in a way no happiness jar can.

Happiness isn’t the problem, of course. Happiness is fantastic. It’s our obsession with happiness, and the never-ending quest for it, that causes us the trouble. The truth is that some of the most rewarding, purposeful, and beautiful things in life — like parenting, marriage, and friendship — don’t always make us feel happy. They carry a certain grittiness to them, but we don’t diminish their meaning or beauty by acknowledging the unhappy parts. I treasure my children, but I can assure you that when I am in the trenches of a five-alarm tantrum, I am not feeling happy. Picking my husband’s socks off the floor and enduring uncomfortable “discussions” about whether we can afford to take a vacation do not fill me with the warm fuzzies. Struggling to find the time to connect with a dear friend who feels lonely isn’t easy or particularly fun.

But in doing these not fun or happy things, we create a life that carries weight and meaning and leaves us fulfilled. We feel purposeful and valuable and loved, and we want to give those things back in return. This yields something even better than “happy” because this creates joy.

This obsession we have with happiness is backfiring. Putting pressure on ourselves to bloom and to chase and to find happiness is just too much sometimes. And frankly, it’s annoying. Most days I’m not even sure what my “passion” is, and “bliss” these days looks a lot like sleeping past 7 a.m. on the weekend, but for some reason I don’t think that’s what these folks are after.

The glorification of happiness above all else perpetuates a cycle of inauthenticity — a cycle that says we (especially women) should be or act a certain way regardless of what we’re really feeling inside. And you know what? Fuck that noise. We are human, for goodness’ sake, not robots. And certainly not freaking Stepford Wives. Life isn’t all wine, roses, and trips to Italy, for fuck’s sake; it’s also cleaning toilets, volunteering in our communities, grabbing crappy fast food on the way home from baseball practice, and putting Band-Aids on invisible boo-boos. And while individually these things don’t always make me happy, collectively they give me a meaningful life, so I’ll take it.