Relentlessly pursuing happiness interferes with enjoyment. Happiness, used as a motivational carrot, keeps flourishing beyond our grasp. When we envision happiness as a problem to be solved, we focus on the wrongs, the sorrows, and the disappointments. We busy our selves with changes and continuous evaluations of our current state of being. This isn’t enjoyable; living with a problem that can’t be solved undermines our goal and disrupts the liveliness of existence. We have the right to pursue happiness, however, wouldn’t it be nice to seize happiness while in pursuit and get off the hedonic treadmill.
Self-improvement is healthy. Healthy behaviors accomplished today relieve some anxieties tomorrow, improving immune systems, environments and relationships. Healthy living lightens cognitive loads in the future.
These life improvements don’t always immediately have a positive impact on our feeling experience. We feel pretty much the same. the crowing moment of a great accomplishment (college degree) or a tremendous instant of unexpected luck (a winning lottery ticket) may immediately boost our mood but typically we slip back to our normal homeostatic balance.
When healthy living becomes a habitual practice, the benefits are felt—but in the future. If pursuing happiness in the moment drops activities that don’t inherently feel pleasant, we interfere with future happiness.
The Pink Elephant Thought Experiment
The experiment goes like this: “try not to think about pink elephants—very large and very pink elephants.” Once the image is planted in our minds, it’s strengthened by forcefully trying not to think about it. In psychology, we call this the ironic process theory.
By feverishly pursuing happiness, seeking to unearth negatives that need to be righted, burdens our system with a constant focus on those negatives. These endless pursuits magnify unpleasant feelings. When we try to not think of pink elephants, we naturally inviting those darn elephants into our thoughts. In order to suppress the thought, we keep provoking the thought we desire to suppress.
The Slow Process of Change
Feelings often change with improved living; but the changes are subtle. Constantly evaluating contentment, peace and satisfaction for inadequacy invites thoughts of what we are seeking to avoid—inadequacy and disappointment. Inner-contentment (happiness) and outer-achievement are associated but the correlation is complex.
Acceptance While Pursuing Happiness
Christopher Germer PhD. a clinical psychologist and lecturer on psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, explains, “well-intentioned strategies are destined to fail. It’s not the fault of the techniques, nor is it the fault of the person who wants to feel better. The problem lies in our motivation and in a misunderstanding of how the mind works” (2009, location 252).
Germer is pointing to the problem of the pink elephant. Our general feelings of malaise, disappointment, anxiety, depression, or whatever else we wish to squash, keeps our attention on the conditions, judging slightest variations, and enhancing their poignancy.
“The suffering itself is not so bad; it’s the resentment against suffering that is the real pain.”~Allen Ginsberg, poet
Germer teaches that acceptance is the path, making a point that acceptance isn’t a clever by-pass to escape discomforting emotion. He writes, “within modern psychology, acceptance means to embrace whatever arises within us, moment to moment, just as it is. Sometimes it’s a feeling we like; sometimes it’s a bad feeling. We naturally want to continue the good feelings and stop the bad ones, but setting out with that goal doesn’t work” (location 278).
A natural byproduct of acceptance is that discomforting feelings lose their toxicity. However, focusing on the byproduct reduces the effectiveness of acceptance.
Acceptance stops the rigorous pursuing of elusive happiness, and relishes current beauties. In a cycle of happiness and acceptance, happiness invites acceptance and acceptance invites happiness. Germer explains, “both acceptance…seem(s) to happen more easily after we’ve given up the struggle to feel better” (location 620).
See Self-Acceptance; Future Growth for more on this topic
Balancing Acceptance with Pursuing Happiness
Many overly structured individuals suffer maladies of the mind (unhealthy anxiety), preventing enjoyment of their achievements. Their pursuit of excellence is healthy. Their conscientious efforts to perform well admirable. The malady of thought is their reliance of perfection for self-confidence. They meticulously examine every behavior for weakness, following their harsh judgement with punishing punitive thoughts. The inner tyrant may lead to external successes but the relentless drive always prevents the crowning achievement of happiness. They constantly are pursuing happiness but will never obtain rewarding joy. Life will always provide more to do, with more goals to chase, and more errors to punish.
See Self-Deprecating for more on this topic
Pursuing goals and improving our lives is essential. We can’t just say life is great, lulling ourselves into inaction. Germer reminds, “acceptance is not resignation or stagnation; change naturally follows acceptance” (location 611).
Happiness balances healthy choices that improve futures with peaceful acceptance. Healthy behaviors prevent future distressing pitfalls—the events that disrupt happiness. Life, left to its own, is in a process of decay. We must expend energy to invite growth
Developing relationship skills deepens connections that increase outside support. Saving money diminishes future anxiety over bills. We never perfect these life skills but our energy devoted to improvement prevents decay.
Always Room for Improvement
We continually face paradoxes, gives and takes of different priorities with benefits and costs. We need skillful balancing and counterbalancing. We never arrive at perfection. Perfection cannot be the goal of our pursuit. The carrot of perfection will continue to dangle beyond our reach, frustrating enduring efforts.
We can set time goals for time we desire to devote to a particular improvement. We can reach time goals and experience satisfaction in the accomplishment.
There is always room for further improvement. When we over-identify with what we lack, the shortcomings spark discomfort, creating an unsolvable conflict between what we want and what we have.
Happiness improves by small degrees with stability, strengthened relationships, and improved health; but, also, essential to happiness is savoring the moment by compassionately accepting current feelings, and appreciation of the pursuit. Happiness cannot belong to the future when we arrive at some magical finishing line; it must be experienced in the present. When we engage in self-progress for the sake of growth, accepting the continual path of development, we create the circumstances now for happiness. In our right to pursue happiness, we can find happiness. In the end, happiness no longer is something we pursue but something we possess.
Germer, C. K. (2009). The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions. Guilford Press.