Assuming it’s the only way to find joy is just one of the misconceptions we have about happiness.
First, let’s be clear that there is little wrong with valuing happiness. Being happy is a desirable state for most of us, and prioritizing positivity is an effective way to increase happiness in our lives. Yet, there are many misconceptions about what happiness is that sometimes get in the way of this worthy pursuit.
Let’s expose some of the worst offenders and identify how we might think about happiness a bit differently.
1) Happiness will come, if only …
Having a desire to be happy is fine. It’s when we’re overly concerned about the desire that things start to go awry. Happiness is felt in the present, so we jeopardize its existence when we allow internal concerns and negative self-talk to get in the way of experiencing it. Researchers Brett Ford, Iris Mauss, Felicia Zerwas, and Oliver John call this “concern about happiness,” which is different from “valuing happiness.” Individuals who are overly concerned with happiness tend to worry about happiness and judge their experiences rather than savor them. In contrast, those who value and prioritize happiness by actively seeking out fun and joy tend to fare better.
2) Happiness conflicts with a mature sense of purpose
There are some of us out there who believe our identity as a “diligent worker” or “dedicated parent” precludes us from having fun. This phenomenon is often attributed to the maladaptive work ethics leftover from Puritanism, which unfortunately still linger today. The irony is those who don’t find at least some delight in activities throughout their week wind up losing the ability to perform, either because of burnout or other health-related problems. A little self-awareness can go a long way to mitigate these misaligned values. Positive emotions allow us to flourish and thrive, and prioritizing positive emotions helps us perform better overall in almost all aspects of life.
3) Happiness is a discrete construct
Happy is just a word, and the beauty of that fact is that you get to define what it means for yourself. To accomplish this, start by gaining clarity about what being happy means for you. What for you creates an authentically happy state? For instance, something your friend finds enjoyable, you might find dreadful. This is perfectly natural—because you are not them! The truth is happiness is experienced differently for everyone, based on our individual desires, cultural upbringing, whether we like high-arousal or low-arousal fun—to name just a few of the many factors that influence our preferences.
[Read: “Imagine Yourself Happy.”]
One of the first steps of taking charge of your own happiness is determining what you truly want your definition of happiness to look like. Armed with this self-knowledge, you can begin to schedule how you spend your time more mindfully. You can learn to stack the deck of your daily life in favor of activities that align with your definition of happiness, naturally fostering more of it.
4) Happiness is a destination
The idea that happiness is a place we will someday land at is one of the best excuses to mortgage the wonder of present moments for an imaginary and unguaranteed future. The author Bronnie Ware researched and cataloged the regrets of those at the end of their life, and near the top is "I wish that I had let myself be happier." Happiness, however you land on your definition, is going to be experienced as the corpus of memories you had along your life-long journey. The fix here is simple: find your happiness in the journey, don’t wait to arrive.
5) Happiness is the only way to find joy
Experiencing joy isn’t reliant on an inherent sense of happiness. For those stricken by heartache or a sense of loss, trying to make yourself happy can actually be self-defeating. There are times in our lives when happiness isn’t appropriate; happiness isn't meant to be with us all the time, and that’s okay. If you’re not in a mental state where happiness makes sense—for instance, you’re trying to be happy for someone else when you, yourself, are not feeling up for it—paradoxically, you will likely make yourself even unhappier than when you started.
We know from academic study that even when happiness is elusive, we possess the agency to still experience moments of joy. For me personally, a period of unhappiness came after the untimely death of my younger brother, Brian. Most of us will find happiness elusive while mourning and processing loss—I was no different—but I still found joy during this time celebrating Brian’s life and connecting with others. It required an action-oriented approach, but these moments were there for me to find without having to pretend I was happy about the loss of my brother.
If you are in a position where you don’t want to identify as happy, that’s perfectly okay. There are periods in our lives where healthy escapism is warranted that don’t require us to get stuck in the happy trap.
When we become aware that we define our own happiness and we accept that we are not meant to be happy all the time—we free ourselves from expectation. Without the prerequisite of expectation, we are in a better position to fully enjoy the way we spend our time. Through an approach fueled by action orientation and self-compassion, we find we no longer have to pursue happiness at all—instead, happiness is there when we are ready for it.
For further reading: “How a Neighborhood Can Promote Happiness.”