Dreams of happiness - what are they really?

We can all dream. Some dream more than others. Some live their dreams. Some dream away their lives. Some could argue: “Why dream at all? Just live your life.” Personally, I've always dreamt, of differing things as I grew up and, for me, dreams were a useful way of thinking and imagining where to go next. Dreams of finding happiness. But what actually is happiness?


For someone lost in a desert, the happiest thing could be finding an old bottle of stale water. For a millionaire, who has everything money can buy, it could be a kind hand on the shoulder. Whatever the case, us humans are all too often hungry for external input.

Once the person in the desert has drunk the water, they will be searching for something more - in their case, it is for physical survival. The millionaire, with the unexpected hand of kindness on their shoulder, misses it when it is lifted away. Does their smile stay in positive memory and gratitude or does it fade again, as they know it is something even their money can't buy and they don't have the social confidence to invite it back?

Both cases could be left dreaming of getting their needs met. So is that what dreams of happiness really come down to? Dreams of the things we are missing to feel better in our lives, whether basic survival, ambition or self-actualisation - the very top of Maslow's triangle of needs.

What is happiness really?

Do you know what you need to be happy? Really, deeply happy? Maslow's triangle is brilliant for pointing out the hierarchy of needs and how fulfilling one level logically leads to the next.

The person lost in the desert is unlikely to start dreaming of starting a family or running a business until they can ensure their most basic need of survival. For now, that is where their focus and happiness will lie - even if they stumble across a bundle of money dropped from the pocket of a camel trader. Sure, it will probably bring a smile but a smile unlikely to last for long because it is unable to help with the current level of needs - survival.

The same with the removed hand of kindness from the millionaire's shoulder. Their general lack of human contact will still be there - that need will not have been met, only temporarily warmed. It is a similar story with addictions, meeting a basic need of pain removal or deflection, but it doesn't improve the hurt - more of that on another day.

In our modern, relatively comfortable world, most are fortunate enough to have basic survival needs met. In our modern world, with all the media attention on celebrity and the beaming faces worn by those at the top of the food chain, we sit fed the images and mantra that this is what happiness looks like. This is what should be our happy dream and anything less is too little.

That millionaire achieved such status, so why are they not happy? If money, fame or fortune are what brings happiness, why are so many of the wealthy in unhappy despair? Look at Robin Williams, the bringer of joy and happiness to so many, wealthy beyond most dreams, yet inside he was still unhappy and sadly took his own life.

So, if fame and fortune can't bring happiness, what can? Compare two Sunday morning football matches; one with goals marked by sticks in rural India, and one on a dedicated pitch in London. Which one do you think will have the happiest faces? Which one the most stressed and annoyed? It's the same game in each case. The same number of players. The same official goals. Just different expectations. Different measures of happiness. Different measures of blame for any failure to do more than just enjoy playing the game.

I think that's what we all too often forget in our modern lives: to simply let ourselves enjoy. To let our inner child smile - happy to be alive and loving the positive wonders all around us.

Humankind has evolved enough to travel faster than the speed of sound, talk with people on the other side of our world and go to shops stacked with all our survival needs day and night. That in itself is amazing and something few would have dreamed even a century ago.

We have more than they could ever have wanted, so why are we not all beaming and jumping with joy? Surely we should be. Could we? I think we can. If not all the time at least more than we do.

How to find inner happiness

What if we start with the basics?

1. Be happy to be alive

Those diagnosed with terminal cancer often say they feel more alive in the time they have left than at any time in their life before. Knowing they will soon lose it makes them value every moment and everything they have, including the simple beauty of nature.

2. Build a firm foundation of happiness

A firm foundation is needed to support the climb up Maslow's triangle of needs. Markus Persson, the founder of Minecraft, sold his business for $2.5 billion and suddenly found himself so astronomically wealthy he became distanced from his previous friends and is reportedly now sad and lonely.

3. Cherish and value the good in what we have

It doesn't mean we stop working to make things better, we just stop regarding current things with disdain. We don't have to like them, just accept them as a current necessity while moving forward. Many of those Eastern European Brexiteers looked down on, came over here to live not in luxury but in shared houses to reduce expenses and allow them to later go home with a pile of savings, having made a relative fortune to invest there.

If we can accept and enjoy what we have, at every step of the upward climb in our lives, will we not feel intrinsically happier? And, if we fulfil at least the fundamentals of each step in Maslow's triangle, in our personal and social lives without upset for what we miss, will we not enjoy fuller more deeply happy lives?

Or do we stay fixated with the luxury lifestyles of the rich and famous, ignoring how troubled or unhappy they might feel inside? Consider this, from the near-future sci-fi book 'Nuclear - Bursting Point':

“...We're born on a rock of iron; spinning at a thousand miles an hour; hurtling through a freezing void at 67 thousand miles an hour while orbiting a nuclear fireball burning at 15 million degrees. And yet, against all the odds, here we are...”

Surely that miracle in itself must be something to smile about. As for our day-to-day lives, does it not come down to choosing our state of mind? Glad your glass is half-full or unhappy it is half-empty? Same glass, same amount of water, different levels of happiness. Surely our dreams of happiness are entirely in our hands. Entirely in our control. Can we not all choose to view the glass as half-full? 

Regardless of social status, can we choose to not just dream emptily for what we don't have but actually be happy for what we do, while grasping not for the currently impossible but instead for the untapped possibilities within our reach? Even that lonely millionaire could stop kidding that money brings happiness and invite that kind hand to sit down for a chat, one human to another.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, MK9
Written by Brad Stone, Integrative Therapist - Dip., MBACP, MNCPS (Acc)
Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, MK9

Brad Stone is a therapist and writer, based in Milton Keynes

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