Why You Need To STOP Chasing Happiness

Here are two strategies to help you realign your mental health priorities.

By Jourdan Travers, LCSW | August 8, 2022

Many people come to therapy with a simple concern: "I'm not happy. How can I be happier." And therapists will often tell them, "Well, it's good that you're in therapy — that's a start!"

Of course, it takes time, effort, consistency, and gradual changes in behavior to get from where you are today to where you want to be. But don't ever think that you are destined to be unhappy for the rest of your life. That is your mind playing a trick on you. It's the same feeling we get when we are sick and we feel like we will never be healthy again.

Our minds have a terrible tendency to assume that how we feel at this very moment is how we will continue feeling in the future. But life isn't like that. There are so many changes happening — both internally (in our body) and externally — that it's almost never the case that how we feel now is the same as how we will feel in a day, week, month, or year.

With that said, it's not a good idea to sit around waiting to feel better. It's also not a good idea to try to 'think' our way out of our happiness problem, as it is likely our thinking that has put us in our rut in the first place.

In fact, there is some interesting new research to back this up. A team of psychologists led by Felicia Zerwas of the University of California Berkeley found that people who value happiness to an extreme degree are actually less likely to be happy in the short term and in the long term. The reason for this, they think, is that these people become so preoccupied with their quest for happiness that it leads to disappointment, regret, FOMO, and a host of other negative emotions. According to the researchers, it's okay to aspire to be happy, but, where people run into trouble, is when they become concerned about happiness.

So, if you shouldn't chase happiness, what should you do? Most psychologists will tell you that the trick to feeling happier is by DOING! Doing more of the activities that make you laugh and bring you joy. Grab a coffee or tea with your friends, check-out free events with friends or co-workers, or go for a bike ride with someone you know.

Now, you might say, "But I'm an introvert. I don't like socializing or being around others," to which a therapist would say, "NO EXCUSE." Because sure, we all enjoy a bit of alone time and peace and quiet — but with the emphasis on a bit.

Many studies have shown that socializing with peers is a surefire way to boost your mood. It even benefits those with high social anxiety levels or who are more introverted.

The second technique preached by therapists is to focus on mindfulness practices. What I mean by that is to practice meditation, breathing techniques, or anything that helps you separate yourself from your thoughts and emotions because, while you might be experiencing anger or frustration at this moment, you're not an angry person. You aren't required to react to any physical sensation of discomfort you feel inside your body. You can watch the emotions move in and move out like waves crashing against the sand.

And this is important.

Because the truth is that the extent to which we feel bad about our emotions MATTERS, a lot! When we try feeling more joyful, feeling lousy about how we feel in this moment hurts our happiness goal and makes it less likely that we will feel happier. It's a vicious cycle.

This might sound weird and confusing, but trust me, it's something I observe with my clients on a regular basis. It's like when we self-criticize ourselves for not being whatever "fill in the blank" enough. The criticism we direct toward ourselves isn't magically going to turn into the energy we need to make a change or improve our situation. What we need is self-understanding, not self-hate.

So, remember, when you are feeling unhappy, don't try to "think" yourself out of the problem. Instead, engage in more of the activities that bring you joy — even if you have to force yourself to do them — and build in some mindfulness exercises to help put space between your thoughts and your emotions.