How to Be Happy: Stop Looking for Happiness and Find Fulfilment Instead
We’re programmed to believe that being happy is the ultimate goal, but what if there’s something else that makes you feel even better and is actually easier to attain?
Most people, it seems, are on a perpetual quest to find happiness. It’s a noble, albeit challenging, pursuit. And mostly because our notion of happiness is akin to finding the Holy Grail. That once we discover it, we’ve essentially discovered the meaning of life. But what is happiness, really? And is it, in fact, what we should be searching for? Let’s take a deeper dive.
What Is Happiness?
Happiness is a feeling of joy, contentment, and excitement, yet it’s a temporary sensation. Happiness is a fleeting feeling that comes and goes but cannot last, as life will inevitably lead to other incompatible feelings such as uneasiness, fear, anger, etc.
And most people think of it as arriving at certain points in life. If you think you’re only going to be happy if you have a particular job, for example, then you're in real trouble. Because it can be taken away from you at any moment. Constantly pursuing this thing called ‘happiness’, automatically tells you it's not here. It will come to you tomorrow or another time.
Comparison Is A Happiness Killer
The other issue with happiness is it’s often viewed in terms of using other people as a benchmark. Comparing our own lives to snapshot images of happiness that we see on social media is very problematic because these images give people the illusion of perpetual happiness. Thanks, Instagram.
The reality is that social media doesn’t give us an accurate perception of other people’s lives. Generally, people create posts that offer the illusion they want to project. They share the dream they have for themselves but not the reality. What’s interesting is that we are so ready to believe it. We use these fabricated realities to convince ourselves that we are inadequate to others.
Constant comparison to others can create a sense of perpetual disappointment. Instead, compare yourself with where you were yesterday and your interactions with your world.
What Is Fulfilment?
Fulfilment is the process of living a valued life, where one pursues things that matter to them or that they are passionate about. It generally comes from choosing actions that move a person towards what they value, as well as achieving goals that were guided by those values.
Living a life with integrity towards ourselves and one that’s consistent with our values generally leads to a more fulfilled life. Fulfilment brings the locus of control inside us so that we have greater agency over our experience. We determine what is meaningful to us and then have the power to live our lives in a manner that is consistent with the meaning we long for. Whereas happiness is more externally driven, leaving us at the mercy of outside forces or changing circumstances.
How To Shift Focus From Happiness to Fulfilment
While we’re often programmed to believe that happiness is the most important thing to seek, fulfilment is more sustainable — and across a wide range of emotions. Fulfilment may help a person better cope with other feelings such as disappointment, sadness, loss, and anger.
The goals is to focus on living a rich and meaningful life that is in line with your values as much as possible. This means working towards embracing a range of emotions from joy and excitement, to boredom, disappointment, sadness, fear, anxiety and even embarrassment or shame. It also means being willing to choose meaningful actions even in the face of discomfort or hardship and staying true to the kind of person, partner, or parent that you truly want to be.
The irony is that often when people stop trying so hard to feel a certain way, it helps to create more space for those feelings to naturally arise. If you embrace the continual ebb and flow of your emotions, it can help make joyful feelings all the more precious and enjoyable when they do arise.
How To Create Fulfilment
People find fulfilment in many different ways. Life doesn’t always bring us happy experiences, but we always have the opportunity to find meaning and fulfilment in our experiences, which ultimately, is very empowering. It is always possible to find the meaning in our lives if we learn to shift the focus of our thinking and expand our vision.
1. Focus on others. Often meaning and fulfilment can be found most easily by focusing on others and how we might bring greater ease and happiness to their lives. One of the things that research tells us is that volunteer work brings great fulfilment.
2. Look internally. Ask yourself which moments in your life did you feel most fulfilled. Is there a theme or pattern? What was it about those experiences that meant the most to you? Do you long for more of that in your life? Fulfilment is far more nuanced than the kind of false association we make to having the newest fashions or the nicest house on the block as determinants of happiness.
3. Be grateful. Gratitude helps people connect to a greater good. And it has a host of benefits, like encouraging more positive emotions, improving health, and dealing with adversity. You can still strive for more but appreciate what you already have. Experience joy with what you have right now and recognise you can keep growing and fulfilling potential.
4. Foster connections. Ultimately the most important thing is relationships, connections to other people, and some sense of community, whether that community is you and your family, you and your partner, or your group of friends. It's bonding; connection; and being with people instead of feeling separate, isolated and disconnected, so you feel connected and part of something.
At some point in life — probably when we’re just old enough to understand the concept of goals and achieving them — we’re taught that happiness is something to strive for. And that it’s tied up in the milestones of life — getting that promotion, making a lot of money, graduating from school, getting married, you get the picture.
The problem is that this notion of happiness becomes a constant chase and we’re always moving the target. We place our happiness somewhere off in the future and therefore we're never able to enjoy where we are now because we're always thinking we’re only going to be happy when we get to be, do, or have something.
We Don’t Know What Makes Us Happy
Since money worries make us stressed, we assume more money might be the key to happiness. But we’re wrong. Research shows that just enough money to get us a little above the poverty line does increase happiness, but beyond that, it has no correlation to happiness.
It is an illusion that external events or circumstances like wealth or marriage will create happiness. When we look outside ourselves for happiness, we no longer have agency over our own happiness and count on others to make us happy or we depend on things to fill us up.
We Might Not Even Know What Happiness Is
The other problem is that the pursuit of happiness is also often based on the idea that happiness means joyfulness and excitement. But humans aren’t designed to stay perpetually excited or joyful. If we are focused on the pursuit of happiness, even if happiness is momentarily achieved, what are we to do when these feelings wax and wane? This can become a trap because if we set a strong intention to strive for happiness then we may then feel disappointed and less happy when we run into the reality that joy and excitement cannot last indefinitely.
Happiness Is An Elusive Goal
When happiness is seen as somewhere off in the future, it’s always out of your grasp. If you’re not able to be in the present moment, you're actually avoiding experiencing what's happening right now, which is not always going to be joy, happiness, or pleasure. It can be pain; it can be sadness; it can be loss. It can be disappointment. We end up repressing, denying, or distracting ourselves from these feelings so we can keep focusing on this elusive goal.
Like all feelings, happiness is transient. We cannot grasp at it without it becoming more elusive or creating a fragile false and shallow kind of happiness that will not sustain us. Feelings associated with happiness arise more organically when we aren’t trying to force it, but instead, can compassionately embrace all feelings that arise, so that all the focus isn’t on happiness.
Accepting other feelings, paradoxically, allows them to pass more quickly, and leaves room for happiness and contentment. When we choose to repress or reject some feelings, they prevent us from having an integrated and authentic response to the world, both internally and externally.
The human experience involves a broad spectrum of emotions — from deep pain to deep joy and everything in between. We don’t even know what joy is because we're constantly trying to repress every other emotion. The problem is, we feel that we've got to be on this constant high. And so therefore we're just being inauthentic most of the time.
We Pay A Price For Chasing Happiness
If we're not reaching those milestones that we think are tied to happiness, like success and wealth and marriage, we feel a sense of disappointment. We not only become disappointed, we become distant. Maybe you start to criticise yourself, maybe you start to feel guilty for not feeling happy that you've gotten this ‘thing’.
People become disillusioned and then start experiencing inner emptiness. And the inner emptiness is the result of pursuing goals rather than actually doing things that are meaningful to you. The pleasure, the joy, the satisfaction has to come from doing what you're doing, being what you're being, having what you're having, not just thinking it's always tomorrow.
When we focus on the pursuit of happiness, aside from assuming that happiness is the natural desired state of humans, we also tend to then assume that if we are not happy, then we are defective in some way. These feelings of inadequacy can then lead to unhappiness, which further fuels perceptions of inadequacy. This becomes a cycle that can be difficult to break.
Unrealistic pursuits of happiness as a goal can also lead to a range of mental health issues. In particular, pursuits of happiness that go unsatisfied can fuel a person’s inner critic, which can increase depression and anxiety. Feelings of disappointment can also increase feelings of inadequacy and low mood, which are precursors to depression.
How To Re-image Happiness
Genuine happiness comes from having done the hard work of going inside ourselves with the curiosity and compassion that allows us to develop self-acceptance and genuine relationships with others.
It’s also correlated to a number of things such as cultivating gratitude, embracing all feelings that arise with curiosity and compassion, developing the capacity to create a meaningful narrative of our life, and developing enough intimacy with ourselves that we are capable of engaging in relationships with others.
Getting to a place where happiness becomes a state of being rather than a future goal takes some practice.
1. Live in alignment with your values. What are the standards, principles, and things that are truly meaningful the life? What are the things that give you a sense of significance, a sense of purpose? What motivates you? What are the things that feed your passion? If you're living your passion, if you're living your purpose, if you're living in alignment with your values, then already you have a sense of satisfaction, a sense of joy, a sense of yes.
2. Try to be completely engaged in something you enjoy. Whether it's riding a bicycle, painting, creating, or writing, when you’re doing something you enjoy, a state of flow occurs naturally. The reason you have this extraordinary almost euphoric response is because you stop thinking about yourself. You lose the concept of self and become fully absorbed in what you're doing. That alone is an example of mindfulness or living in the present moment where all of your senses are engaged in what you're doing.
3. Look for a sense of significance. In what way are you making a difference? How are you connected to your community? What role are you playing? Even if it's listening to a friend or helping someone laugh, that's what gives us greater meaning in life. Sometimes our greatest sense of satisfaction comes from knowing that we're engaging in something that's significant, something that's making a difference to other people's lives.
The hunt for happiness doesn't need to involve chasing after something; it's more about seeing what's already here and learning to appreciate by trying these kinds of mindfulness strategies.
Sally Edwards Counselling
I am a fully qualified counsellor based in Orpington, Kent
I work with clients with problems including: depression, anxiety, panic attacks, stress, low self-esteem, low self-confidence, identity issues, relationship problems, self-destructive behaviours, self-harm, childhood sexual abuse, sexual violence, domestic violence, domestic abuse, trauma, PTSD, eating disorders and body image problems.
I am easily accessible from local areas near me including Orpington, Bromley, Chislehurst, Petts Wood, Sidcup, Beckenham, Sevenoaks, Tonbridge, Knockholt, West Wickham, Chelsfield, Swanley and Bexley
Face-to-face in person or online counselling