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Is happiness overrated?

This bird definitely seems happy

I don’t know what’s happened to me – maybe it was January boredom – but I appear to be taking part in an Instagram challenge.  It’s called #100HappyDays, and involves taking one picture a day, for 100 days in a row, of something that’s made you happy. I’m actually rather enjoying it – I mean, I don’t really think pictures of my dinner add that much to the world of social media, but it’s quite fun taking the time to think about and capture whatever cheers me up. Plus, I’m looking forward to having a visual diary at the end of it to reminisce over. Yet at the same time, I feel slightly conflicted because – I don’t really agree with it.

To be more specific, I have issues with the project’s name and also its tagline, ‘Can you be happy for 100 days?’ They both rile me because I feel this constant search for happiness that’s encouraged in society is misguided, unrealistic and, ultimately, makes us more miserable. Being perfectly happy all the time isn’t the natural human condition, and I don’t think it’s necessarily healthy for us to be aiming for this.

Now, I’m not some kind of Debbie Downer who exists in a pit of misery and wants to drag everyone else down to my sorry depths. Up until a few years ago I struggled with bouts of anxiety, but I’ve (thankfully) learnt to control this and, these days, am a reasonably content and optimistic person. I don’t have any qualifications in psychology (apart from an A level, but I’m pretty sure that doesn’t count) so I’m not in any position to be dishing out professional advice but, through my experiences, I feel I’ve learnt a few things about the nature of happiness and why a constant quest for it is ultimately counter-productive.

Firstly, sadness, grief and negativity are unavoidable aspects of human life – if you don’t ever feel them then you’re quite possibly a sociopath, and that’s really not something to be aiming for. To be truly happy and healthy we need to learn how to handle and manage these emotions, rather than shunning and avoiding them. Don’t feel bad for feeling bad – there’s no need to give yourself an extra dollop of harshness on top of whatever you’re already struggling with. Be kind to yourself.

Secondly, happiness is a binary opposite of sadness. They can’t exist on their own, because our entire concept of one is based around it being the opposite of the other. So 100% happiness 100% of the time is impossible, because by definition you need to also experience sadness in order to recognise positive emotions. Incidentally, I suspect this is also why people you meet from super-comfortable, very privileged backgrounds who’ve never experienced any struggles often seem very discontent – but maybe that’s a whole other blog post.

Lastly, I think that instead of striving for happiness we should be aiming to feel contentment instead. Accept yourself, your emotions and learn to be comfortable with that ‘grey space’ somewhere in between unabated ecstasy and heart-wrenching despair. If anything, it will make those moments of pure joy all the more wonderful when you actually do experience them.

Sometimes I feel completely bombarded by this pressure that we all need to be constantly happy – usually by advertising and the media. It’s a false need, created to make us feel bad about ourselves so we buy more and consume more. The human experience involves a whole range of beautiful (and sometimes painful) emotions – not just the one. And ironically, if you’re not always searching for happiness, you’ll probably find you come across it even more.

But all that said, I’m still going to carry on with my little #100happydays challenge. If anything, taking the time to notice all the wonder in your life helps you practice gratitude, which is one of the key elements of contentment. Just don’t feel bad/ guilty/ anxious if your day hasn’t been 24 hours of roses and rainbows, ok?

Photograph by Jerrod Maruyama, shared under a creative commons licence


1 Comment so far

  1. Viv

    I couldn’t agree more. I also feel there is something rather dishonest about the need to appear happy all the time; it’s as much a fear of being accused of being, as you put it, a Debbie Downer.
    Life, in all its fullness, and that includes as much sadness as it does happiness.

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