Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Is Being ‘Happy’ Overrated? How NOT Chasing Happiness Could Be the Key to a Good Life

The pursuit of happiness can be a good thing. But what about when it’s just plain elusive and we feel pressure to be happy? And how does Covid play into this? Sarah Lang looks into if whether happiness is a myth.

Happiness: it’s what we all want, right? Something we have or something we’re searching for. Something that should be pursued.

Let’s quickly cover off various definitions of the word. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary says “the meaning of happiness is a state of well-being and contentment: joy”. Psychology Today says happiness has “been said to relate to life satisfaction, appreciation of life, and moments of pleasure, but overall it has to do with the positive experience of emotions”. In practice, people often think of happiness as being satisfied or joyful, and feeling positive.

‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ isn’t just one of the American constitution’s three inalienable rights, and it’s not just the name of a movie (though the latter is spelled ‘happyness’). It’s the notion of chasing after happiness as the absolutely right and necessary thing to do.

As we all know (unless you’re a rare exception), happiness can be plain elusive, at least at times. And if we’re overly focused on the pursuit of happiness, we might find ourselves focusing on what we don’t, rather than what we do, have. If we compare ourselves to (or even envy) people who appear happier than us, that might that make us feel less happy. (I’ve been there; my brother has a charmed life.)

Is there a societal pressure to be happy and the notion that, if we’re not, we must be doing something wrong? Or is the ‘pursuit of happiness’ an awesome thing, and we should just do more of it?

A numbers’ game?

Recently Stuff did a survey about the happiest places in New Zealand. Its subsequent article stated that one in two New Zealanders feel happy, Hawke’s Bay residents are the happiest in the country, and males are a bit happier than females. (Just a guess, but men aren’t dealing with menopause, fluctuating hormones, period pain and childbirth, for starters – don’t get us started on the mental load.)

But I digress: the survey found that half of New Zealanders don’t feel happy. This includes half of 25- to 44-year-olds. We could see this as a problem, or we could accept that it’s normal not to be happy, at least not always.

But generally speaking, throughout the pandemic it’s been easier to be happy in New Zealand than it’s been in many other countries. New Zealand placed 10th of 106 countries in the 2022 United Nations-commissioned World Happiness Report, based on a three-year average from 2019 to 2021.

As the report’s introduction states, “The World Happiness Report 2022 reveals a bright light in dark times…. The pandemic brought not only pain and suffering but also an increase in social support and benevolence. As we battle the ills of disease and war, it is essential to remember the universal desire for happiness and the capacity of individuals to rally to each other’s support in times of great need.”

This is great, important and necessary – absolutely – but for most of us it’s been (and still is) a helluva lot harder to be happy during the pandemic – particularly with the ongoing uncertainty of what Covid’s future plans are.

Yet, the pandemic has also reminded many of us of what’s most important, and what makes us happier (for instance, more time with the kids rather than working long hours).

 The Psychology Today article ‘Happiness and the COVID Pandemic’ by Dr Chris Barrington-Leigh, an Associate Professor from McGill University, is U.S.-focused and was published in 2020, but many of its points apply to Aotearoa too, then and now.

“A nice way to sum up some of the most prominent findings from decades of happiness research or, more specifically, life-satisfaction research, is the following: happy societies promote a sense of dignity, of self-efficacy, and of community,” Barrington-Leigh writes.

“What has the science of happiness got to do with our current coronapocalypse? Plenty, of course. It is interesting that much of what is being discussed now about how to stay sane, connected, and even happy while locked up, or out of a job, is what economists studying ‘happiness’ have been advocating for years.”

“If you find your perspective shifting about what the real ‘essential services’ are for society, or for your mental well-being, you will be mirroring the process of ongoing happiness research. Maybe you have already gained newfound appreciation for the overwhelming importance of your social and family connections, for broad social ‘togetherness’ and inclusion, and for the ability to access the basics of life.”

What three real women think

Should we keep chasing after happiness, that elusive butterfly? Writer Amanda Hunt says: “I think what we should be pursuing isn’t happiness, but contentment. Happiness is lovely but it is impermanent – it’s unrealistic to expect to be happy all, or even most, of the time. But I think it’s good to get to a point where we can weather life’s storms and experience negative things while still feeling broadly content.”

Stef Rozitis, a teacher, writer and nascent academic, says “I think if you pursue happiness as a quest it eludes you. I aim for a daily ‘awesome’ which can be something I read or a beautiful flower or hugging one of my kids. Something small but I aim to notice it. I still tend to depression like I always have but it [appreciating the good things] helps. I also reflect on people who love me as often as possible.”

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can be a useful therapeutic approach and mindset. The empirically-based psychological intervention uses acceptance and mindfulness strategies along with commitment and behavioural-change strategies to increase psychological flexibility and resilience. Louisa Woods, a counsellor from Blenheim, says many therapists who use the ACT approach “talk about the concept of happiness a lot. Their argument is that we’re most content when we’re making moves towards a rich and meaningful life but that doesn’t necessarily equate with happiness. In fact, some of the richness can come from sorrow or loss or heartache. Russ Harris’ book The Happiness Trap was an eye-opener for me.”

As the title of The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living suggests, Harris asserts that happiness isn’t a normal state of being, and that mainstream ideas about happiness are actually misleading. He argues that the way we try to pursue happiness may actually make us sadder, stressed, anxious, even depressed; whereas using ACT as an approach can help us connect with the present moment, and find more pockets of satisfaction. As one reviewer of the book put it, “happiness is a pleasant sideshow in the larger carnival of an engaged and purposeful existence”. ACT isn’t just for people in therapy: it can be studied and harnessed to potentially alter your mindset.

Of course, my having the option to contemplate the pursuit of happiness involves great privilege, as a white, middle-class, middle-aged heterosexual woman. That said, by contemplating happiness, and welcoming when it comes along instead of chasing after it, I feel more glass half full than glass half empty.

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