I’ve spent my life defining happiness as feeling good. Feeling positive. Upbeat. Cheerful. And I’ve spent much of my life studying the science of happiness and ways to increase and maintain happiness too.
I then read and discovered that I should make happiness into a goal. ‘If ultimately our goal for doing everything is happiness, then why not make happiness a goal directly?’, I was told. And it made sense to me, so I did!
So I’ve done everything from mindfulness, gratitude, acts of kindness to others, self-compassion, using my strengths and having fun (I admit, I skipped eating lots of kale). And they were great in and of themselves, but when done out of the desire to feel happy, something didn’t feel right.
I could easily end up thinking ‘Am I happy now?’ and if I did, great, but there was a slight fear it may disappear. And if I didn’t feel upbeat and joyous, then there was a sense of failure and that I need to try harder with the techniques.
It also reminded me of this quote by Henry David Thoreau.
“Happiness is like a butterfly, the more you chase it, the more it will evade you, but if you notice the other things around you, it will gently come and sit on your shoulder.”
As I’ve been re-exploring a mindfulness-based approach to therapy and wellbeing called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), something has shifted within me very recently. I am no longer striving to feel good. My personal aim has shifted from feeling good, to living a rich and meaningful life, as they recommend, based on their research findings on what’s worked in thousands of studies.
With that meaningful journey, pain comes as part of the course. When you move towards things that are meaningful to you, it’s going to hurt. ‘We hurt where we care’ says Hayes, the originator of ACT. And so the path to this deeper and profound happiness is certainly not about feeling good all the time, but about opening up and making space for the challenges that will arise as you move boldly to fulfilling your dreams. What doesn’t need to come on the journey is suffering, which is created through a resistance to pain. The greater you resist pain, the greater you’ll experience suffering.
We hurt where we care - Steven C Hayes
Sadness, anxiety, anger and fear will be your travellers, and your job will be to face up to them mindfully and kindly, learn from them and don’t try to fix them - instead, bring them along on the ride. They are part of the package, and any attempt to suppress, deny or fix them will only make them stronger. The same goes for negative thoughts like ‘I’m not good enough’ and ‘This hurts too much’. They are really just thoughts and you can say ‘thank you mind’ and keep doing what YOU want and need to do, not what thoughts happen to pop into your mind.
And so, the other day, when I was feeling particularly good and cheerful, I was grateful for the feeling. But I didn’t think of it as a success I need to hold onto as I may have done in the past. No. I genuinely felt the feeling to be a lovely positive by-product of focusing on my values and doing what matters. Joy is to be enjoyed when it visits fully, without any need to hold onto it.
And on the days when I don’t feel so upbeat, again, it’s certainly not a failure at all. Just another emotion to learn from. A reminder to open up and accept the difficult feelings and keep moving forwards, doing what truly matters to me. Difficult emotions actually offer a great opportunity to be fully open to feeling them as they are.
We all have much less control over our thoughts and feelings than we think. If I gave you a simple task of not thinking of flying pink elephants, you’d struggle. And many well-controlled experiments have found this to be true. So trying to just have positive thoughts and feelings (the same goes for your feelings) is an impossible task, and you’re guaranteed to fail.
And because our brains and bodies have evolved to survive rather than to just feel happy, being happy is not a natural feeling to have all the time. Our brains have evolved to ensure we have enough food, shelter and to stay safe and reproduce.
When you define happiness as just feeling good, you set yourself up for failure if you want a lifetime feeling happy, as feeling good is just one of the many feelings you experience as a human.
Instead, rather than defining happiness is feeling GOOD, think of happiness as FEELING good.
Your journey will be navigating the course of your life using the compass of your values, taking steps to fulfilling your dreams and being present to the rainbow of emotions and a variety of thoughts, without avoiding the difficult ones or chasing the pleasurable ones. Pain will be your friend but suffering will be left behind.
What does happiness mean to you? Is it feeling good or experiencing fun and pleasure? Or is it cultivating a rich, full and meaningful life, seeking to take action based on your values?
Try redefining what happiness means to you and see what effect that has.
If you’d like to learn more about my approach of combining mindfulness with kindness, consider my free 7 day course. Or my full 8 week program which is currently on sale - includes 60 mini daily videos and over 15 guided kindfulness audio meditations to try.
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