End your pursuit of happiness

Everyone wants to be happier. We want a better job, partner, apartment, a more meaningful life, to find our passion. Underlying these goals is a desire to feel better about ourselves. We want a little more happiness and a little less unhappiness.

Just look at our social media feeds. No one is posting pictures of themselves in pajamas that they haven’t washed for a month, eating cold, 3-day-old pizza. (Okay, most people aren’t posting those pictures…) Instead, it’s all about FUN, JOY, and BEAUTY.

Happiness has become such a hot topic that science has taken notice. Over the last decade, Positive Psychology has exploded as researchers look into helping people find happiness they want.

However, the research isn’t panning out the way you might think. Normally, we think that activities, possessions, status, etc. are the building blocks of happiness. Or, to quote Daniel Tosh, “Have you ever seen an unhappy person on a Jet Ski?” Research, though, tells us that these types of things only provide us with a short, temporary boost of happiness.

This is what researchers have called the “hedonic treadmill.” We grasp for the typical things to make us happy, but just like being on a treadmill, we don’t make any meaningful progress. You might feel a temporary increase in happiness when you get that perfect job, slide into that new car, or get the digits from that guy at the gym. But a little while later you are back in those pajamas with the cold pizza.

And despite the fact that nothing has really worked so far, we continually find ourselves on the “hedonic treadmill.” (“I swear, my next job is going to be what makes me happy.”) And this is the part that can actually turn your pursuit of happiness into a realization of unhappiness. When we continually fail to find meaningful happiness through our usual efforts, it can leave us feeling a little depressed.

Now, I know what you are expecting from me. You are waiting for me to tell you that in order to be happy, you just need to tell yourself that you are happy. (“Like, just let the happiness in.”) Wrong. I’m not going to tell you that because it’s nonsense. Let’s be honest, if that actually worked, wouldn’t we all be doing it?

Instead, what I’m here to tell you is that happiness lies in admitting to yourself when you aren’t happy. (“Um…what?”)

Well, usually, we can’t admit to ourselves when we are unhappy. We don’t want to feel bored, sad, exhausted, depressed, etc. so we try to cover those feelings up by jumping on the “hedonic treadmill.” But we’ve already seen that those efforts don’t work.

So, this is what I want you to do next time you notice that you are unhappy: nothing.

“Okay, Kyle, that sounds like the perfect recipe for getting depressed,” you think. No, and here’s why (and it’s kind of magical). When you stop running away from the things that make you unhappy, you actually start to feel a little less unhappy.

If you can sit with the thought, “Man, I am really bored right now,” you can start to experience your boredom as a little less boring. Thoughts, ideas and questions may come up: “Why am I bored?” “Do I always feel bored doing these things?” “What’s that about?”

When you push your boredom away, however, and cover it up with something “exciting,” you are just giving yourself a temporary fix. You are just covering up the problem (and you aren’t getting anywhere, like, you know, being on a treadmill).

What I’m advocating for is not easy—in fact, it’s much, much harder than what we normally do. But admitting when you are unhappy, and seeing what that unhappiness is all about, can offer you something profound: a little bit of happiness.

There is a saying in Zen along these lines: if you can’t find the truth where you are, where do you expect to find it? In the same way: if you can’t find happiness where you are, where do you expect to find it?