What do we think happiness is?

By Craig E. Brewer

Recently, I have struggled to get my mind around the question “What is happiness?”

On the face of it seems like a simple question that has an even simpler response; however, after deeper consideration I discovered that the obvious answer is not necessarily the correct one.  Even if it is the answer that is most accepted by society at large.  So, what really is happiness?

I believe that happiness is a construct that goes further than its opposite of being unhappy and leads us to what Dr Russ Harris coined as the “Happiness Trap”.  Society has trained us to think that being eternally happy is an achievable state, whilst the reality is that more often than not feeling happy is the last thing that we experience on a daily basis.  On the other hand we don’t go around in a state of perpetual sadness either.  Both happiness and sadness are the extreme ends of the same continuum.   The reality is that life involves us experiencing various levels of pain.  At no time do I intend to  minimise what an individual may be feeling at a particular time in their lives.  On many occasions I have been sitting quietly contemplating the universe and some well-meaning soul comes up to me, puts their hand on my shoulder and tells me to cheer up, it’s not that bad.  Well it wasn’t until I lost my train of thought but now, well need I say more, I was definitely not happy!

In the west we live in a consumer based acquisitive society where often a persons worth is judged by their assets and material wealth.     People live in big homes with bright shiny new things that do the latest and greatest thing that is all the trend.  We work and strive in order to obtain those things that we think will make us happy.  That new car is cool then I will be happy!  If I could get a new job with more money, I would really be happy then! If I could find a better partner my life would be fulfilled and I would be able to live happily ever after!   Unfortunately when we do get that better car, that more fulfilling job or that more understanding and exciting partner every thing goes well for a short time, boredom sets in and then we start to look at the next set of things that will make us happy.  So what is the problem?  The construct of the concept of happiness is the problem itself.  Happiness is a fleeting emotional response that lasts only a short time, but it has an addictive quality that is fed by advertising, marketing and society at large.

That addiction to happiness can bring about anxiety that is brought about by the status that we perceive ourself to have, accompanied by the inadequacies that we identify when our expectation does not meet our reality often leaving us depressed.  Or, that constant drive for the better to the extent that we forget to stop and appreciate what we already have and what we have achieved.  Mindlessly pursuing happiness leaves us feeling empty and cheated.  So, what can we do about it?

The good news is, we don’t have to play the game by rules we don’t understand and keep us at a disadvantage.  We can identify what really matters to us and then make changes to the way we interact with our thoughts and feelings so that we move towards living a life focused on our values.  Over the next few weeks I will be exploring these issues a little deeper to help unpick what happiness is and what it is not.  As well as my thoughts on developing a way of dealing with unhelpful thoughts and feelings so that they do not exert control over our behaviour.  As Dr Harris would say, “we need to stop struggling and learn how to live a full and valued life”.

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