Are you trying too hard to be happy?

The famous writer on Eastern philosophy, Alan Watts, once declared: "You can’t be spontaneous within reason". The point he was making was this: deliberation is the opposite of spontaneous action, and so you cannot do both at the same time.

Of course, there are other examples of a conflict of opposing tendencies that can cancel each other out. A subtle case is pursuing happiness too determinedly. After all, it can be hard to be solemnly happy (solemn here meaning too "serious and without humour"). Yet the attempt to be solemnly happy is what can easily happen when we are too intent on achieving our goals and too intent on material success.

Now, do not get me wrong: I am not saying that happiness does not, in part, involve achieving what we want from life. But recent studies have shown that our material circumstances (i.e. what we often seek to change and to possess) only accounts for 10% of our happiness and that 40% is attributed to our attitudes and the intentional activities that we undertake. If we do not adopt happiness-cultivating attitudes, then we are unwittingly cheating ourselves of possible happiness.

So, in the case where we are gritting our teeth and striving too hard to achieve our goals, we are acting as though our happiness is primarily, if not solely based on changing our material circumstances (in reality, only a 10% contributor to our happiness). Apart from the misunderstanding of what makes us happy, the problem here is that too rigid a focus on goals turns our life into being all about the destination and little about the journey. We become serious - and more than a little anxious - about reaching our destination, and such solemnity turns the passing of our days into being like drab train stations that we count on the way to the promised land. It is hard for happiness - let alone joy - to occur under such uninspiring inner conditions.

What do we do then? Part of the answer is that we recognise that cultivating happiness involves undertaking, at least some of the time, activities that are intrinsically satisfying and fulfilling. With these kind of activities we do not need to try so hard to become happy, because, while we are doing them, they are already satisfying and fulfilling; another way of putting this is that the process itself is happiness-promoting.

Another essential dimension of happiness is realising that it is as much about receptivity as activity, being as much as becoming. When we are trying too hard to be happy, when we are striving too assiduously to achieve our goals, we miss out on the part of happiness that is associated with relaxation and contentment. Being happy in the moment is not so much about what you are doing, but more about creating a "space" for contentment to "arrive". This happiness-promoting attitude is summed up by the well-known quote: Happiness is like a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you. 

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Written by Dr Alexander Fox (MBACP, Masters in Counselling, PhD (Eng Lit.))

I am a pluralistic counsellor in private practice in the city centre of Dundee. I am trained to help clients with a wide variety of problems and I am able to employ a number of different therapeutic approaches, so that the therapy process is always tailored to the individual needs of each of my clients.… Read more

Written by Dr Alexander Fox (MBACP, Masters in Counselling, PhD (Eng Lit.))

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