Happiness: The more actively it’s pursued the more elusive it seems and then the greater the disappointment. That’s been my experience anyway.
Nonetheless, I don’t blame anyone for trying. The pursuit of happiness for happiness sake has become a cultural obsession and it’s hard not to get lured into the trap.
But I’ve come to realise that the cheeriest people in this world are those who don’t consider their personal happiness a priority but instead are able to find purpose and meaning from focusing on the greater good.
What I mean is they tend towards altruism rather than self-absorption.
This is in contrast to the happiness chasers who, research shows, are forever getting bogged down with the tedium of soul searching and navel gazing required for the purpose. They work so hard at being happy yet all this introspection must be so wearing not to mention, counterproductive.
As psychologist, Hugh Mackay points out in his bestseller, The Good Life: What Makes a Life Worth Living? – obsessing about ourselves and what emotional state we happen to be in is no way to find happiness.
Being socially active, lots of community engagement and making sacrifices for others, he says is the trick.
Melbourne GP and psychotherapist, Dr Russ Harris seems to concur. In his new book TheHappiness Trap, he reckons many of us are so intent on the pursuit and preservation of happiness that we end up establishing an unrealistically high bar for our mood. We are not, he emphasises, designed to be constantly happy.
But he goes further. He believes the harder we pursue pleasurable feelings, the more we are likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. But serious mental health implications aside, he is in no doubt society’s views on happiness need to change.
“It’s the whole culture really. If you’re not feeling good and positive, [you’re made to feel] there’s something wrong with you … our culture doesn’t really teach us to accept the normal pain of human existence,” he says.
“Anyone who is interested in happiness had better get used to accepting pain.”
Which reminds me of a UNSW study conducted some years ago that looked at emotions and concluded that like happiness, grumpiness is almost good enough to be bottled – although not necessarily in those words.
Led by psychology expert, Professor Joe Forgas, the research suggested that when we’re grouchy we tend to be better at decision-making, less gullible and more able to cope with demanding situations. Apparently, a negative mood triggers more attentive, careful thinking because we tend to pay greater attention to the external world rather than being introspective.