When I was studying psychology at university, I did not imagine that later on as a therapist I would have to face a problem called “happiness.”
This mysterious thing we call happiness seems to be a must-have for everyone and – whether we achieve it or not – we are in trouble anyway.
“I have a problem… I am becoming happy!”
Once at the beginning of a session, a client told me: “I have a problem. I am becoming happy!”. I was in shock, as you can imagine. She went on to explain that after becoming more aware of her individual needs, she had started changing her life according to them and could not recognise herself anymore. She felt lost without her friend “unhappiness” after having been together for so long. Things were going in a new direction and she did not know how to deal with the change she had always been looking for!
Another client confided in me how much he actually liked his very low self-esteem, because it made him interesting to himself and other people like him. It was an identity in which he had invested his whole life and he was finding it hard to let go of it, even though he was unhappy.
How can happiness be bad?
These two people offer an example of how much we can be attached to our way of life, even if it makes us suffer. We are scared to let go of what we know and open up to what we don’t know, even if this unknown quantity is a good feeling. This dynamic comes from an incorrect concept of happiness that is deeply rooted in our society.
We think that happiness is a goal to be achieved, that it is some outcome of our social, working, sexual, parental, relational and other types of performances. It seems to be something that we feel is absent in us and we do not consider to be an existing part of our nature. In this way, we condemn ourselves, because we assume unconsciously that we are unhappy and need to do something to become happy.
This kind of happiness arises only from fulfilling expectations and superficial desires. We look to satisfy them in the outside world and in the end we only achieve temporary fulfilment. As a consequence, we become addicted to the external world as a source of this so-called “happiness.” But can we still call it happiness?
The happiness brainwash
As far as I am concerned, this conditioning is the outcome of our modern society, starting from the family in which we are born. Parents and relatives, even with good intentions and either consciously or unconsciously, pass their unfulfilled dreams and expectations onto the new generation to realise them in their place:
“I don’t want you to make the same mistakes as me!”
“I couldn’t study, but you can do it!”
“I am working hard to give you a better life!”
This helps explain why our relationships are so often in chaos. When two people meet, they are never just a pair, but two whole different groups of people! We carry parents, aunts, uncles, friends and even movies that we have seen and books we have read with us. All of these participate in creating our view on achieving happiness.
Work & School
This same dynamic is present in our working and school environments. They are the places where we get trapped in the idea that we are what we produce. Grades at school, salary at work and professional promotions are considered not just outcomes of our behaviour, but as real determinants of what we are and how we should feel. The consequence is that we start to believe that our happiness and unhappiness are determined by external recognition.
Also, living abroad and travelling are experiences based on the pursuit of feeling happy. We emigrate for different reasons: to seek new challenges and adventures or to look for a better job, better university, better society… a “better” happiness!
A more authentic happiness
Only when we get more in touch with ourselves we do start to feel a deeper kind of happiness. This type of happiness emerges, for example, when we do activities that we really enjoy, when we get involved in meaningful relationships or fulfil our authentic needs. This is a beautiful step because it makes us truer towards ourselves, less attached to social conditioning and – therefore – freer in our lives.
This level of happiness implies the need to take some risks: to choose the unknown over the known, the adventure over a comfortable life, the new over the old. And that is where my two clients got stuck. They were starting to change their lives according to their individual and deeper needs, but they became scared of taking important decisions. Unhappiness, unconsciously, had become a friend that they were feeling loyal to.
In my opinion, even if we feel scared, we have to keep looking forwards and not backwards. Our fears are present and real, but we should not follow them. What pulls us back from moving on are the layers upon layers of trusts betrayed, instilled fears, unfulfilled needs, expectations and wounds we carry with us. When we start letting them go and creating our new way of living, we start moving in the right direction.
An addictive pursuit
Once we start enjoying our authentic life choices, we feel much stronger and more satisfied. We don’t care about all the difficulties that we have to face on our path, because it is worth it. The warning, at this point, is that we can get stuck in wanting to keep on improving something about ourselves or our lives. We get addicted to therapy, empowerment training, meditation courses, sport activities and so on, because they make us feel good and we still believe that these external sources will give us a sense of complete fulfilment.
The risk in becoming addicted to a kind of life based on continually changing ourselves is that we start to identify our true selves with the pursuit of inner happiness.
Let go of concepts
As you can see, we all carry with us many concepts about what happiness should be like.. and then spend our lives trying to achieve it. But what happens if we let go of the pursuit of happiness? Or even better, what happens if we let go of the whole concept of happiness? We can start getting closer to a way of being that in itself is a natural happiness. It is a sense of contentment and satisfaction which belongs to every living being, as a direct expression of life itself. Just being is enough.
It’s a state of being, baby!
If you don’t recognise what I am talking about, try watching babies in the first years of their lives. At this time they are nothing but a natural expression of life, fully open and confident. Babies do not know what self-esteem is.. and yet they have it! They do not know about happiness and they also have that. They do not know about love and trust and do not have to struggle to be innocent and free, as they already are! Babies have no expectations, only survival needs: love, food and warmth. They accept you for who you are without conditions and without an opinion about your physical appearance, behavioural patterns or personality.
We don’t need happiness to be happy
Striving to reach happiness keeps us busy our whole life. We are used to see it as something we try to grasp but never seem able to hold. It makes us feel safe because we think we know what we are doing.
To really be in a state of natural happiness is scary, because we have to let go of our expectations of happiness itself and accept what life brings us, both the good and the bad. That way, happiness might reveal itself with the same innocent giggle that we had when we were children!
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Many thanks to Tessa Nagtegaal for providing her time and expertise to help with this article.