I had an interesting conversation with someone about a pattern she’d noticed in her life. After about six months in situations that initially seemed great, she’d start feeling stuck and questioning whether it was what she really wanted. This realization got her wondering, can we ever be 100% happy?
It’s a totally natural thing to want to be happy. Although there are differing opinions about the worthiness of happiness as a primary goal, I think most of us deep down would like to be happy if we can.
For one thing, feeling happy is just more pleasant than feeling unhappy. Also, happiness seems like evidence we’ve made good choices and that we are where we should be.
But the expectation to be perfectly happy is a lot of pressure! Requiring 100% happiness is demanding that our life measure up to precisely our version of perfect.
In reality, the full range of emotions is part of the human experience. No situation or person is perfect. Even the most satisfying dream job is going to have aspects that feel like work. The people we love the most are going to annoy us and disappoint us at times. Even the best places to live are going to have drawbacks. Tragedy and heartache can find their way into our lives no matter how carefully we try to live.
Making 100% happiness our goal is simply unrealistic.
Goals can be a wonderful tool. They give us direction and purpose. Meeting our goals gives us a sense of accomplishment.
Unattainable goals, however, can have the opposite effect. Having a goal that we consistently fail to meet prompts more frustration and self-criticism than happiness, which, in turn, moves us further away from that happiness we’re trying to attain.
One response is to blame ourselves. We don’t deserve happiness. We make terrible decisions. We’re too hopelessly flawed. We’re too picky. We’re not smart enough or brave enough or talented enough or lucky enough…
We try to force ourselves to be better—to be happier. We may berate ourselves for not being more grateful for what we have or criticize ourselves for all the ways we believe we’ve screwed up our chance for true happiness. We may refuse to acknowledge the emotions we don’t want to feel, pretending to ourselves and everyone else that we are happy.
Another response is to blame our situation. If only our job paid better. If only our boss wasn’t a jerk. If only our significant other was more supportive. If only we had a bigger house. If only our friends would invite us over more often.
If the problem is external, maybe it’s not really our fault we’re not as happy as we think we should be. We may change our location, our job, and our relationships in the hope that we’ll eventually find just the right combination of circumstances to ensure our lasting happiness.
Now, I realize that the quest for 100% happiness may be a little extreme. But how many of us respond in these ways when we think we’re not as happy as we believe we should be?
So what can we do besides trying to figure out who or what is to blame?
Acknowledge that you are not your feelings.
Being happy doesn’t mean we’re good. Being sad or angry or afraid doesn’t make us bad. Feelings are a valuable source of information, not a measurement of our worth.
Ian Cron shared a helpful image—picture yourself as the sky and your emotions as the clouds moving across it. Our feelings are part of our experience, but they come and go and change. They can tell us a lot about how we’re interpreting our current experience, but our values and our character are what show who we are.
Trade your all-or-nothing thinking.
We can fall into the trap of believing that if we’re not completely happy, then we must be unhappy. If something isn’t all right, then it must be wrong. Actually, we are not limited to being only one thing or another. We can be happy and frustrated…and sad and scared and excited and angry and hopeful all at the same time. A situation can be imperfect and still be wonderful.
Consider what happiness means to you.
No dictionary definition can tell us whether or not we are happy. If we only have vague ideas about what we mean when we say we want to be happy, how can we possibly know how to bring more happiness into our lives?
Think about what it feels like to be happy in a moment, but also about what happiness looks like in the long-term. What matters to you? What do you value? What will mean the most to you, even if there are bumps along the way. What would make you look back from your death bed and be satisfied with your life?
Get clear on where you are and where you want to be in the key areas of your life.
When we’re dissatisfied in one area, unhappiness can spill over into other areas of our lives. Looking separately at each area can help us see which parts of our lives could use a little attention.
The Wheel of Life is an exercise that helps us assess where we are, envision where we want to go, and choose steps to move us closer to where we want to be. I created a guide to walk you through this exercise. You can find your free copy here.
Remember why you chose that thing in the first place.
No matter how great a job or a relationship or place initially seems, eventually we’ll start noticing the things about it that aren’t quite perfect. We can get so caught up in looking at what’s less than ideal that we forget all the good things that initially drew us.
Remembering our original reasons can return what we value about our situation to our awareness. It can also help us assess how well that thing is fulfilling it’s intended purpose. Sometimes making a change and moving in a different direction is the best option. But not always. Encountering challenges in our current situation doesn’t necessarily mean we chose wrong.
Allow yourself and those around you to be human.
You are not perfect and you will not always be perfectly happy. And that’s totally ok. The people in your life won’t always be exactly how you want them to be. And that’s ok too.
Don’t let your ideas about the way things should be keep you from accepting reality. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to make things better. There’s always room for growth and change. But remember that you’re allowed to be a work in progress. And so is everyone else.
As you make decisions to build the life you want, hopefully more happiness will be included in the equation. But that doesn’t mean there won’t also be emotions like sadness, frustration, anxiety, anger, or longing.
Developing our inner qualities and ways of responding to the world around us will do more to create a sense of lasting happiness than searching for just the right combination of external circumstances.
I’d love to know…how would you define happiness? What do you do when a situation you originally thought was great starts to lose its luster?