Stop Trying To Be Happy

Stop Trying To Be Happy

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If you have to try to be cool, you will never be cool. If you have to try to be happy, then you will never be happy.

Maybe the problem these days is people are just trying too hard.

Happiness, like other emotions, is not something you obtain, but rather something you inhabit. When you’re raging pissed and throwing a socket wrench at the neighbor’s kids, you are not self-conscious about your state of anger. You are not thinking to yourself, “Am I finally angry? Am I doing this right?” No, you’re out for blood. You inhabit and live the anger. You are the anger. And then it’s gone.

Just as a confident man doesn’t wonder if he’s confident, a happy man does not wonder if he’s happy. He simply is.

What this implies is that happiness is not achieved in itself, but rather it is the side-effect of a particular set of ongoing life experiences. This gets mixed up a lot, especially since happiness is marketed so much these days as a goal in and of itself. Buy X and be happy. Learn Y and be happy. But you can’t buy happiness and you can’t achieve happiness. It just is. And it is once you get other parts of your life in order.

Happiness is not the same as pleasure

Tony Montana didn't seem too happy.

Tony Montana didn’t seem too happy.

When most people seek happiness, they are actually seeking pleasure: good food, more sex, more time for TV and movies, a new car, parties with friends, full body massages, losing 10 pounds, becoming more popular, and so on.

But while pleasure is great, it’s not the same as happiness. Pleasure is correlated with happiness, but does not cause it. Ask any drug addict how their pursuit of pleasure turned out. Ask an adulterer who shattered her family and lost her children whether pleasure ultimately made her happy. Ask a man who almost ate himself to death how happy pursuing pleasure made him feel.

Pleasure is a false god. Research shows that people who focus their energy on materialistic and superficial pleasures end up more anxious, more emotionally unstable and less happy in the long-run. Pleasure is the most superficial form of life satisfaction and therefore the easiest. Pleasure is what’s marketed to us. It’s what we fixate on. It’s what we use to numb and distract ourselves. But pleasure, while necessary, isn’t sufficient. There’s something more.

Happiness does not require lowering one’s expectations

A popular narrative lately is that people are becoming unhappier because we’re all narcissistic and grew up being told that we’re special unique snowflakes who are going to change the world and we have Facebook constantly telling us how amazing everyone else’s lives are, but not our own, so we feel all like crap and wonder where it all went wrong. Oh, and all of this happens by the of age 23.

Sorry, but no. Give people a bit more credit than that.

For instance, a friend of mine recently started a high-risk business venture. He dried up most of his savings trying to make it work and failed. Today, he’s happier than ever for his experience. It taught him many lessons about what he wanted and didn’t want in life and it eventually led him to his current job, which he loves. He’s able to look back and be proud that he went for it because otherwise he would have always wondered “what if?” and that would have made him unhappier than any failure would have.

The failure to meet our own expectations is not antithetical to happiness, and I’d actually argue that the ability to fail and still appreciate the experience is actually a fundamental building block for happiness.

If you thought you were going to make $100,000 and drive a Porsche immediately out of college, then your standards of success were skewed and superficial, you confused your pleasure for happiness, and the painful smack of reality hitting you in the face will be one of the best lessons life ever gives you.

The “lower expectations” argument falls victim to the same old mindset: that happiness is derived from without. The joy of life is not having a $100,000 salary. It’s working to reach a $100,000 salary, and then working for a $200,000 salary, and so on.

So, I say raise your expectations. Elongate your process. Lay on your death bed with a to do list a mile long and smile at the infinite opportunity granted to you. Create ridiculous standards for yourself and then savor the inevitable failure. Learn from it. Live it. Let the ground crack and rocks crumble around you because that’s how something amazing grows, through the cracks.

Happiness is not the same as positivity

fake-smileChances are you know someone who always appears to be insanely happy regardless of circumstances or situation. Chances are this is actually one of the most dysfunctional people you know. Denying negative emotion leads to deeper and more prolonged negative emotions and emotional dysfunction.

It’s a simple reality: shit happens. Things go wrong. People upset us. Mistakes are made and negative emotions arise. And that’s fine. Negative emotions are necessary and healthy for maintaining a stable baseline happiness in one’s life.

The trick with negative emotions is to 1) express them in a socially acceptable and healthy manner and 2) express them in a way which aligns with your values.

Simple example: A value of mine is to pursue non-violence; therefore when I get mad at somebody, I express that anger, but I also make a point to not punch them in the face. Radical idea, I know. (But I absolutely will throw a socket wrench at the neighbor’s kids, though. Try me.)

There’s a lot of people out there who subscribe to “always be positive” ideology. These people should be avoided just as much as someone who thinks the world is an endless pile of shit. If your standard of happiness is that you’re always happy, no matter what, then you’ve been watching way too much Leave It To Beaver and need a reality check (but don’t worry, I promise not to punch you in the face).

I think part of the allure of obsessive positivity is the way which we’re marketed to. I think part of it is being subjected to happy, smiley people on television constantly. I think part of it are some people in the self help industry that want you to feel like there’s something wrong with you all the time.

Or maybe it’s just that we’re lazy, and like anything else we want the result without actually having to do the hard work for it.

Which brings me to what actually drives happiness….

Happiness is the process of becoming your ideal self

Completing a marathon makes us happier than eating a chocolate cake. Raising a child makes us happier than beating a video game. Starting a small business with friends and struggling to make money makes us happier than buying a new computer.

And the funny thing is that all three of the activities above are exceedingly unpleasant and require setting high expectations and potentially failing to always meet them. Yet, they are some of the most meaningful moments and activities of our lives. They involve pain, struggle, even anger and despair, yet once we’ve done them we look back and get misty-eyed about them.

Why?

Because it’s these sort of activities which allow us to become our ideal selves. It’s the perpetual pursuit of fulfilling our ideal selves which grants us happiness, regardless of superficial pleasures or pain, regardless of positive or negative emotions. This is why some people are happy in war and others are sad at weddings. It’s why some are excited to work and others hate parties. The traits they’re inhabiting don’t align with their ideal selves.

It’s not the end results which define our ideal selves. It’s not finishing the marathon that makes us happy, it’s achieving a difficult long-term goal that does. It’s not having an awesome kid to show off that makes us happy, but knowing that you gave yourself up to the growth of another human being that is special. It’s not the prestige and money from the new business that makes you happy, it’s process of overcoming all odds with people you care about.

And this is the reason that trying to be happy inevitably will make you unhappy. Because to try to be happy implies that you are not already inhabiting your ideal self, you are not aligned with the qualities of who you wish to be. After all, if you were acting out your ideal self, then you wouldn’t feel the need to try to be happy.

Cue statements about “finding happiness within,” and “knowing that you’re enough.” It’s not that happiness itself is in you, it’s that happiness occurs when you decide to pursue what’s in you.

And this is why happiness is so fleeting. Anyone who has set out major life goals for themselves, only to achieve them and realize that they feel the same relative amounts of happiness/unhappiness, knows that happiness always feels like it’s around the corner just waiting for you to show up. No matter where you are in life, there will always be that one more thing you need to do to be extra-especially happy.

And that’s because our ideal self is always around that corner, our ideal self is always three steps ahead of us. We dream of being a musician and when we’re a musician we dream of writing a film score and when write a film score, we dream of writing a screenplay. And what matters isn’t that we achieve each of these plateaus of success, but that we’re consistently moving towards them, day after day, month after month, year after year. The plateaus will come and go, and we’ll continue following our ideal self down the path of our lives.

Happiness-map

And with that, with regards to being happy, it seems the best advice is also the simplest: Imagine who you want to be and then step towards it. Dream big and then do something. Anything. The simple act of moving at all will change how you feel about the entire process and serve to inspire you further.

Let go of the imagined result; it’s not necessary. The fantasy and the dream are merely tools to get you off your ass. It doesn’t matter if they come true or not. Live, man. Just live. Stop trying to be happy and just be.

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76 Comments

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  • Reply

    person/girl/organism

    19 weeks ago

    I love the way you put this article, so to speak. I’ve read many articles that kind of allude to the same thing, except there is one really big difference, when you’re pointing out we already have the tools to be more positive, and we should be hard on ourselves for not using them, it’s more important to not feel ashamed for not being able to always do things the right way, or failing in general. Failing is a part of the learning cycle, and no matter how many times someone repeats it, not everyone seems to get it.
    I’ve seen so many articles with good advice, but I just feel sour after reading them because it doesn’t make me feel positive and ready to make those changes, it just makes me feel more ashamed for not trying, or not trying hard enough.
    When I was first sent to a therapist when I was a kid after my mom passed I was made to think I was socially inept, or something in my head didn’t work right, at least according to my Dad, when now I realize there wasn’t anything wrong with me, I was just sad and lonely. And then being diagnosed with so many different things just reinforced those ideas that there was something wrong with me, something that was out of my control and I couldn’t change, and that was scary. I didn’t try things, or go out of my comfort zone, because failing or acting wrongly were ‘symptoms’ rather than mistakes, the fact that I wasn’t changing positively right away meant there was something very wrong. Things became really confusing, I couldn’t tell what I could and couldn’t control within myself, my psychiatrist said that it wasn’t my fault I acted a certain way, but my teacher would say differently, and my Dad would say different from that, and so on. I lived a good portion of my life thinking that I couldn’t do things, because there were feelings and actions I “couldn’t control”.
    It’s definitely true that some people are just going to have an easier time accomplishing certain things, some people are born with talent, some people are born without, I realize that I’m not going to be able to sleep as well as another person, or concentrate as easily, or have the job that I want right now, but the world wasn’t built on easy. I used to think that these ‘forces’ working against me were what was preventing me from being happy, and kept me lost, but I really just needed to see myself, and the reality of the situation. Yes, I have no money in a shitty economy, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about survival is that no one is going to help the person waiting around to be helped, you have to prove you will work hard before it’s rewarded. Things might not come as easily to me, I might get panic attacks, I might get neurotic, but the only thing I’m going to get when I wallow in those facts are negativity and pity. It’s much more admirable to try despite your weaknesses than not try at all.

    tldr; I finally have been able to begin a life where I am truly in control, after dropping the idea that my mental issues were ‘blocking’ me rather than just hindering, ways to better myself have become insanely clear. And the way there was not shaming myself or making myself feel worse for how I already am, but rather showing myself that there are other ways, they’re just a lot harder and a lot more unknown, and now that doesn’t scare me anymore, failing in general just doesn’t seem so scary anymore.

  • Reply

    Masry

    14 weeks ago

    This is the most non-bullshit, inspirational and eye opening article I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a lot about happiness, some of the paragraphs I read many times just to capture it’s awesomeness.
    so, Thanks.

  • Reply

    Kathy

    11 weeks ago

    lol, I love this…just signed up for your newsletter because of it….everybody is telling everybody what their life should be nowadays….& generally the life sold to them has something missing, which creates a void that needs to be filled by something. Something shiny & expensive that is made by the people who are telling you your life is shit! Agree? or am I a massive sceptic? Laugh, make good friends & dump the shit ones, make your heart work a bit each week and keep in mind you can go at any second.

  • Reply

    alyse

    6 weeks ago

    Research shows that happiness is a something that is achievable. This research is discussed in the documentary happy.

    • Reply

      Mark Manson

      6 weeks ago

      Yes, it’s achievable, but it comes and goes. It’s never permanently achievable.

  • Reply

    Mike

    4 weeks ago

    Awesome that you are writing on the subject of happiness.

    I wish you were right on everything. Here’s what’s been shown to be true.

    1. Those with low self-esteem have very high expectations that they reach like 10% of the time or less. Those with low self-esteem will internalize a horrible message to keep their impossible standards that are making them miserable. What’s 100x more healthy than even thinking about expectations to begin with? Setting intentions. Intentions are more than just saying I’ll try, but it’s an acknowledgement of two very important things. Firstly, we’re all human and not capable of perfectly achieving everything we set out to do. Life happens and makes it impossible to meet all expectations, no matter how high or low. Your message to keep unreachable expectations is perpetuating unhappiness, unfortunately under the guise of pursuing happiness. Secondly, all anyone can do is their very best. Setting an intention is essentially saying “I will do my absolutely best to…with the understand that I’m human and life happens because that’s all I can do.” What ppl fail to realize so much of the time is that there is so much of life beyond our control and the wisdom is to accept that aspect of it while still being proactive creators in our life. Honestly, fuck all expectations, including high expectations, and just reframe everything as intentions.

    The other unfortunate thing you emphasize is not to try to be happy when those who study those who are “supremely” happy they find they all absolutely try to be happy. They do not just sit back and find themselves happy as you suggest. Read a book on the happiest people alive and it will prove you wrong. I hope you have the courage not defend your stance on things once there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. That’s called letting your ego fuck you up, but it’s very hard not to do this, especially if it’s a stance your particularly known for. But biasedly defending wrong ideas is going to be one of those things that haunts you on your deathbed.

    Finally, happiness is secondary to leading an engaged and/or meaningful life when you distill everything down. It’s that simple. You’re right, not a pleasurable life, but quite simply an engaged or meaningful life.

  • Reply

    anonymous22

    3 weeks ago

    I admire the way you carried out the message. Honestly, I have read a bunch of nonsense articles that emphasize on the importance of being happy. Yet, they tend to neglect the key aspects of happiness, those of which you have perfectly covered. I believe that people are afraid of pursuing what they want, which is what could trigger the presence of happiness. Underestimating oneself, due to a series of unfortunate incidents, might make happiness daunting to define.

  • Reply

    Filipe

    2 weeks ago

    “When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school , they asked me
    what I wanted to be when I grow up. I wrote down “Happy ” . They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life ” – John Lennon

  • Reply

    Mary

    2 weeks ago

    I love that one of the ways you defined happiness is the process of becoming your ideal self. My Grandparents always used to say that “we never arrive.” To them this meant that the journey of self-improvement (your ideal self) and thus, happiness never ends. We should always be striving for more while still being grateful for what we already have. This is something that I now embrace wholeheartedly.

    I just found your website today. I look forward to reading more! Thanks for what you do!

  • Reply

    Hardeep Singh Dang

    4 days ago

    Definitely interesting and Brutally honest. Reading your blog and I like the honesty and no bull shit approach to writing. Very Much like me. Definitely applying to work with you. Would be an awesome experience.

  • Reply

    Nahla

    2 days ago

    The sentence that caught me at the beginning of the article is “…happiness is not achieved in itself, but rather it is the side-effect of a particular set of ongoing life experiences”. I love the idea of Happiness as a side effect which I believe describes it most. It is a result of doing the thing you enjoy/matter/are important to you most. Very well written. Thanks.

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