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Why Being Happy Is an Unhelpful Goal

So often we ask ourselves, what’s the point? What does it matter? Who cares? We slip into a dull cycle of redundancy and cynicism. Our emotions seem to direct our actions in efforts to achieve one common goal – happiness. In fact, “to be happy” is the most common goal that I hear in therapy. However, there is one problem with this goal… happiness isn’t quantifiable. It can’t be measured from one person to the next. It can’t be obtained from someone else or given to someone else. Most importantly, it is an impermanent internal state of being, a feeling that is essentially unique to each individual that experiences it. It is intrinsically beautiful and disastrous all at the same time. Beautiful when you’re embraced by it. Disastrous when it feels beyond your reach. This is why desiring happiness as our ultimate goal sets us up for inevitable failure. It ensures that we slip back into a cycle that is unhelpful, as we chase something that is temporary with the hope that we can force it to be everlasting. When the feeling of happiness predictably fades, psychotherapist Dr. Russ Harris notes that we can end up engaging in negative self-talk and practices of self-criticism and blame. The thought “why can’t I just be happy?” may invade our perspective and inhibit us from living presently and meaningfully in the moment. In this cycle, we only create extra distress for ourselves and guarantee that happiness becomes even more of a fleeting emotion.


So, what do we do about this? Is it wrong to want to be happy?


Of course not. It’s only natural that we would want to be embraced in the arms of happiness as much as possible. After all, happiness is welcomed warmth in a sometimes very cold world. That being said, the more helpful goal to have is to desire a meaningful, purposeful, and intrinsically fulfilling life. What defines this is inherently unique to us, which means that we are empowered in deciding the path we want to take. As we work towards this type of goal by doing things that we value, we are actually likely to gain increased feelings of happiness as a byproduct of our actions. Yet, the goal is no longer to chase a transient emotion, but rather, to act in ways that create a rich and rewarding existence. Interestingly, in choosing to live a valued existence, we may also find that we are more resilient and accepting during unavoidable periods of difficulty and hardship. This is because we understand that the experience of a variety of emotions is okay. It is okay to not be happy when something tragic, heartbreaking, unexpected, or challenging happens to us. It is okay to accept the authentic feeling coursing through our veins. After all, remaining happy is no longer our measure of success. We have no longer failed ourselves by not being happy. Rather, we continue to triumph and thrive, as long as we are continuing to work towards an identified valued direction that gives us core purpose and significance.


So, the next time you think about your goal, whether it is in the context of the therapy room or in your personal daily life… I challenge you to consider what you want to be doing to facilitate a meaningful, authentic existence. Make choosing to engage in these types of behaviours (whatever they may be!) your measure of success and I have a feeling that you will find yourself more consistently embraced in the arms of happiness.


*For further information on this topic, I recommend the book “The Happiness Trap” by Russ Harris, based on the model of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).


Kaylee Garside, MA, has extensive experience in the areas of mindfulness and acceptance practices, plus many more. For more information on Kaylee and her work, click here to link to her full bio page.