If you’re old enough to be reading this article, you must have seen the old but gold famous Looney Tunes cartoon about Wile E. Coyote chasing the goofy Road Runner. All of the races ended with the roadrunner’s “meep meep”, leaving the coyote angry and frustrated. The enclosed example is a metaphor for any human being chasing happiness. The harder we try, the further we go to catch it, the faster it runs.
In one of our previous articles, we shared some advice on how to be happy. What we didn’t elaborate on back then is what happens when you try too hard. In this article, we’ll cover some of the common misconceptions about happiness and explain the difference between chasing happiness and enjoying your life.
What Happiness Is Not: Common Misconceptions
Today, we talk about happiness more than we’ve talked about it in the entire history of humankind. It’s one of the best-selling emotions. Each year, we measure the “happiness index”, which states which countries are home to the happiest people in the world, and which countries need improvements.
Everything in our lives seems to revolve around this emotion. As children, we want to play more or get a new toy because we want to be happy, we go to school, study at the university, search for a good job, start our own business, travel the world, engage in relationships, try new food, or buy new clothes for one single underlying reason: because we want to be happy.
Although psychologists say that the stimuli, the trigger, for happiness is the sense of achievement, we can all agree that this usually works for short-term, temporary happiness. After achieving a certain goal in life, very often, nothing changes essentially. In less than 24 hours the new quest for happiness will begin, as we set a new “happiness target”.
Why is that so? Does this mean that goals are meaningless, and we should stop setting them? On the contrary. As Mark Manson, the expert on happiness, and the author of books such as The Art of Not Giving a F*ck and Happiness (unexpectedly both of them are guides to living a good life and understanding and achieving happiness as a state of mind) says, this happens because we have the wrong idea about what happiness is and what really makes us happy.
Let us detangle this further.
Pleasure ≠ Happiness
Tasty food, a good movie, hanging out with friends, buying a new piece of clothing, popularity are all sources of pleasure we often mistake for happiness.
Pleasure somewhat overlaps with happiness, when in reality pleasure usually refers to a kind of superficial, often physical experience that doesn’t bring long-term happiness to our lives, while happiness is more of an attitude.
“Too much” pleasure, or better say, an excessive need for pleasure, can even be counterproductive when it comes to happiness, as it represents a character flaw and dependency on the reward.
According to research, materialism and other superficial pleasures seem to be consistently related to higher levels of anxiety, depression, and the uncanny feeling of emptiness as happiness doesn’t seem to inhabit such a place. And that’s because there is much more to happiness than there is to pleasure alone.
Happiness Is Independent of Expectations
Even if we have “unrealistically high” expectations, that’s not the source of our unhappiness. Setting the bar lower can bring quicker goal achievement, but, as we mentioned already, what then? We will keep striving for happiness, setting up new goals, chasing that roadrunner.
The process of reaching a certain goal can be extremely painful. It can involve failure, sadness, frustration, anger, giving up, returning, and finally succeeding. The more invested we are, the more emotional we get. The achievement itself doesn’t change much, but the process of getting there changes everything.
The longer the road, the stronger the nostalgia and the feeling of deep, eternal beauty that we tie to the period.
Positivity ≠ Happiness
Staying positive at all costs is most likely the most dysfunctional state of being. Life gets tough. Bad things may happen. The world can be a dark place.
Experiencing negative emotions is necessary for basic survival as well as for understanding the world around us on a deeper level. Pursuing happiness by forcing yourself to be happy is as frustrating as living a life of negativity.
Of course, there’s a huge difference between a positive mindset and forceful positivity. Instilling a positive mindset means to consciously decide to find something good in everything, no matter how difficult things may be; to focus on growth; and learn rather than “fake it till you make it”.
These three most common misconceptions about happiness reveal the tragedy of chasing happiness: by seeking pleasure excessively, setting higher or lower expectation bars, and being forcefully positive all the time we remain in the role of the Tasmanian Devil. There’s a short “meep meep”, and, before we know it, the roadrunner has disappeared around the corner, leaving us in the dust.
How to Enjoy Your Life
What we’ve learned so far is that happiness is a process, not a given. It requires time and effort, it’s impossible to induce or fake, and it very often incorporates some difficult emotions as well.
An excellent example by Mark Manson illustrates this paradox best. According to Manson, running a marathon will make us much happier than eating a chocolate cake. Raising a child will sparkle more joy than beating a video game. Struggling to start a small business with friends and making ends meet will make us happier than purchasing an expensive computer.
And the thing is, all three of these things are extremely unpleasant. Running a marathon is painful and exhausting, raising a child can be extremely challenging, while starting a business is risky and can make us feel insecure.
All these things involve pain, struggle, anger, despair, anxiety… the list of difficult emotions can go on. But these situations allow us to become our true selves. Something like eating a cake or beating a video game can’t motivate us enough.
Achievements, end results, appearance, or temporary pleasures don’t leave room for our true selves to develop. It’s not crossing the finish line that makes you happy, it’s the achievement of a long-term goal, the hard work that you put in it, overcoming all odds, challenges, and obstacles, and putting your heart on the field.
The Ideal Self vs the True Self
The more we chase happiness, the less happy we are.
“I will be happy when I become a dentist”. But that’s not it. “So, I will be happy when I write a Ph.D. thesis”. Nope, still not it. “Start my own practice.” And so on. The ideal you is always around the corner. But it’s all a phantasmagoria, an illusion.
Detangling the ideal self from the true self is a must-do for each and every one of us, as that’s the only way for us to stop chasing happiness and start enjoying our life.
Results, prestige, achievements, titles, appearance, material goods… all these things really don’t matter in the end. You can fail and still feel good about yourself because you’ve learned a valuable lesson you can use in your future efforts.
Set the expectation bar wherever you want, and just go for it. Let yourself fail, keep your heart open, always keep moving, and simply enjoy the process, not thinking about the final result.