We are all conditioned from a very young age to dream big, aim high and constantly seek personal fulfilment. As children, we are encouraged to study hard so that we can have a well-rewarded and highly regarded job. And as young people, we watch our peers meet their partners, get married, buy homes and there is pressure on us to do well and begin to build a ‘happy life’. And yet it is possible to aim at all these goals, and even reach them, and still not feel happy.
I went to a school reunion a few years ago and realised that all of the people who had the most tangible signs of achievement – big job, big house, happy marriage, beautiful children, idyllic holidays etc. – seemed to be the most withdrawn and least content of the bunch. At around the same time I started working with a series of new clients with a very similar set of symptoms. They each had achieved a lot in life but were dogged by long-term low mood, lack of self-esteem and feelings of despair.
This seeming contradiction of high-achievement and low-mood in one person set me to thinking…
What is it about pursuing happiness that can make people unhappy?
It sounds counterintuitive, but sadly it is true that striving for happiness can cause more harm than good. That is because anyone who strives to find happiness is setting themself up for a fall. In seeking happiness you set yourself very high standards, which can only lead to disappointment when those standards are not met. It is as if the harder you try to experience happiness, the more difficult it is to really be happy.
The trick is to go for happiness experienced in the moment rather thinking of it as a permanent state.
Here are five ways of accessing a more realistic kind of happy.
Prioritise the positive
While you are single-mindedly working through a check list of things you need to get to make you happy, you can accidentally knock the simple everyday pleasures out of your life altogether. So instead of thinking “I will be happy when I… get that promotion… marry that model… buy a penthouse… fill in the goal of your choice…” prioritise the small everyday things that make you feel good. Whether it be sleeping for more than seven hours, hanging out with friends, or getting into the countryside more make a list of the things that bring you happiness and prioritise them.
Trust People (even the ones you don’t know yet)
One of the gauges used in those surveys of the happiest country to live in the world (it is usually Iceland or Sweden) is how much people feel they can trust their fellow citizens. If you fear or distrust the people around you then it is quite obvious that life will not be easy, safe or pleasant. I am not suggesting you start hugging strangers, just that you are more open to the idea of talking to strangers on the tube or people you haven’t really connected with at work before. Feeling that you can trust those around you brings huge dividends in positivity and a feeling of security, and all being right with the world.
Relate to people horizontally
And by this I am not referring to lying down with them! What I mean is: avoid adopting the “one-up one-down” position or thinking of yourself as superior to others. If you weld your idea of happiness to being “better” or having more than other people the chances are you could end up seriously disappointed and frustrated a lot of the time. It also opens the possibility of someone surpassing you and causing bitter resentment and/or envy. There is also the possibility you will create a divide between you and others by believing them responsible for their lack of accomplishments. But if you see everyone as peers and relate to them as siblings rather than as parent to child, it will be help you to see yourself as an equal and not compare yourself to others (see below).
Never “go compare”
It is almost impossible in the social media age not to see the (apparently) picture-perfect lifestyle of others and make comparisons. But making comparisons can lead you to want to be “ahead of the game” or “the best”. In some ways this can be a useful motivator. However, if too much importance is put into it, you can find that once you are ahead of the pack you can be overtaken by others, and the goal posts constantly move. The truth is you can’t win at life, so it’s better to enjoy taking part in it, giving it your best rather than aiming to be The Best.
Get lost (in a good way)
By this I mean do the things you enjoy to the point of absorption so that you lose track of time and be in the flow. This is a form of mindfulness that can give confidence and bring satisfaction without having to measure how well you are doing at whatever you are doing. If you are truly engaged in something it won’t matter a jot how “perfectly” or otherwise you are doing that thing, and the enjoyment of it becomes a goal in itself.
If you would like to talk to a qualified professional about how to achieve contentment in your life and set safe goals call 020 8673 4545 or email firstname.lastname@example.org and the reception staff will book an appointment with one of our therapists. We have centres in Clapham and Tooting, and the TAC Directory, which gives you access to a network of counsellors, psychotherapists, psychologists, and sex and relationship therapists across London.