The 'pursuit of happiness' is something that we believe in so strongly that it is written into the constitution of the United States. We all spend much of our lives chasing after experiences that will make us happier longer. We feel like we have failed at life if we aren't happy all the time. We even have a word for chronic unhappiness: Depression.
We value happiness so much in modern times that we have pathologized unhappiness.
But when we look at the vast scope of human history, it makes me begin to question, is it actually our natural state to be happy? Is it in our genes, in the world, or something else?
According to The Conversation:
Humans are not designed to be happy, or even content. Instead, we are designed primarily to survive and reproduce, like every other creature in the natural world. A state of contentment is discouraged by nature because it would lower our guard against possible threats to our survival.
When we look at happiness from an evolutionary perspective this way, we would do well to realize that happiness isn't actually our natural state. Therefore, expecting to be happy all the time isn't just unrealistic, it may not even be in our best interests.
Trying to be happy all the time could actually be self-destructive in the long run because it sets us up with unrealistic expectations about the way our lives are 'supposed' to be. It can lead to all of the toxic positivity of the 'positive vibes only' crowd. It can lead us to treating people badly if they are unhappy, which actually is a form of reduced empathy.
Here are some common myths about happiness that could actually be hurting us. According to Creative Connections:
Myth 1 – happiness is the natural state for human beings
Our culture insists that humans are naturally happy, but our mental illness statistics say something very different, as do our own individual experiences.
Myth 2 – if you’re not happy you’re defective
Our society and self help culture seems to assume that psychological suffering is abnormal; it’s a sign of weakness, illness. Or that your mind is somehow faulty or defective. Yet experiencing a whole range of emotions is part of living a rich and meaningful life.
Myth 3 – to create a better life we must get rid of negative feelings
There is a definite current trend to eliminate negative feelings and only experience the positive ones. So many experts lining up to teach us how to be happy. Again, as I said previously experiencing a whole range of emotions is part of living a rich and meaningful life.
Myth 4 – you should be able to control what you think and feel
“think happy, be happy” this may work when you are feeling calm but give it a try when you are feeling anxious or stressed.
Could a cultural emphasis on happiness be making us more unhappy? Could it actually be creating depression?
These myths about happiness can shame people who are already feeling unhappy into feeling guilty about not being happy. After all, if our brains aren't hardwired to be happy all the time, why would we logically expect this to be the case? We are going against our biology when we try to be happy all the time. So naturally, we are going to fail.
We need to let go of the cultural myth that we are going to be happy all the time. It just isn't normal.
According to Harvard Business Review,
The people who felt the most fulfilled were the ones who had learned to let go of the need to feel happy all the time and had not only accepted the ups and downs that come with being alive but had also come to appreciate them. This mindset and behavioral shift helped them lean into uncertainty, embrace emotions (both positive and negative), and adapt to their environment with intention and meaning.
In summary, people lead better lives when they let go of the obsession with being happy. Accepting the totality of the human experience, the ups and the downs, leads to a more satisfying life experience than expecting to be happy all the time.
Having unmet expectations is one of the biggest causes of our human suffering, according to Buddhism. So, when we let go of unrealistic expectations, we can lead more fulfilling lives. It's also important to note that being happy and being free from suffering are not necessarily the same thing.
So, if you aren't happy all the time, you aren't alone.
And, there's nothing wrong with you. In fact, you are perfectly normal. Maybe it is the idea that everyone else is happy all the time that is making us unhappy.
Stop pretending to be happy
Many of us spend a great deal of time pretending to be happy because we feel like it is expected of us. We think that we won't be liked or valued if we aren't happy. In a world where we aspire to happiness, we can feel like we are being judged for being unhappy. We may feel like we have missed out on some secret that everyone else has all figured out.
One reason why we feel like this is what we see on social media. We only see the best moments of other people's lives. And if we spend even 15 minutes a day scrolling through social media we are seeing a LOT of those good moments every day. This can reinforce the stereotype that everyone else is happy all the time. Even if intellectually we know this isn't true, we may believe it on a subconscious level.
According to Bioperfection, some situations where people may pretend to be happy include:
Social expectations: Society often emphasizes projecting happiness and positivity. There is societal pressure to appear happy, successful, and fulfilled. This pressure can cause people to pretend to be happy, even if they feel inner turmoil or dissatisfaction. They may feel the need to conform to social expectations and avoid perceiving themselves as weak or struggling;
Personal Relationships: In personal relationships, people may pretend to be happy in order to protect their loved ones from anxiety or worry. They may feel responsible for the well-being of others and hide their true emotions so as not to burden family or friends. This may occur during difficult times, such as relationship conflicts, family problems, or personal difficulties;
Professional environment: In the workplace, people may feel compelled to maintain a happy facade in order to make a favorable impression, improve their professional image, or maintain job security. This may be due to a fear of being judged, a desire to appear competent, or the requirement to meet high standards. The need to portray happiness in a professional environment can sometimes lead to the suppression of emotions and the habit of pretending to be happy.
If you are constantly pretending to be happy, not only can this be extremely exhausting, it can cause your relationships to be shallow and inauthentic as well. When we feel that we are constantly being judged by others and forced into pretending to be happy, we aren't showing people in our lives our true selves. This can cause a feeling of disconnection from others.
This is extremely unfortunate, because having genuine, caring relationships can actually be one of the biggest contributing factors to our true happiness. When we distance ourselves from others out of fear, we are cutting ourselves off from some of life's richest fulfillment.
According to The Harvard Gazette,
Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the study revealed. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.
When we present a false front to other people, not only is it causing us unnecessary stress, it is cutting us off from true connection. Humans are social beings. We need connection. And genuine, caring connections are what gives our lives much of its meaning. Isolating ourselves is counterproductive.
By pretending to be happy, we may be depriving ourselves from opportunities to be truly happy.
Instead of seeking happiness, seek fulfillment
Happiness can be fleeting and is not always attainable. We can't be happy all the time. But we can be fulfilled.
Instead of seeking happiness, Psycom says:
While we’re often programmed to believe that happiness is the most important thing to seek, fulfillment is more sustainable—and across a wide range of emotions. “Fulfillment may help a person better cope with other feelings such as disappointment, sadness, loss, and anger,” Dr. Barbera says.
We can find a sense of fulfillment in life by doing things that are meaningful to us. This can include pursuing our goals, spending time with our family, and in general living a life that is aligned to our values.
Finding a sense of a fulfilled life is easier than attempting to be happy all the time. We don't have to put up a facade, or pretend to feel things that we aren't feeling. No matter how we feel emotionally, we can still spend time working towards our goals. We can still have meaningful relationships. We can still treat others with kindness and compassion.
When we let go of the expectation that we need to be happy all the time, we can relax and stop stressing about how we feel. Then, we can do what we want or need to do each day with a sense of purpose instead. Following a greater sense of purpose in our lives can lead to a greater sense of fulfillment.