How the Constant Desire for Happiness Might be Making You Unhappy

The constant want for a positive experience is a negative experience. 

During that past six months or so of quarantine, some of us might have had time, maybe too much time, to reflect and do some introspection. While doing so, and in hopes of making the current situation more endurable, we might’ve taken some steps to add joy to our days. Maybe you’ve started a new workout routine, added weekly picnics to your calendar, chased sunsets, or had ice cream more times than you can count. 

Adding joy to your day-to-day in small doses this way is not a negative experience. In fact, it’s recommendable. The problem with the desire for happiness starts to manifest when we put a taxing amount of emphasis on wanting a certain outcome- a certain positive experience. If you’ve ever been on a vacation that doesn’t go as expected, you probably understand what I’m referring to- that deflating, upsetting feeling of a certain positive experience not coming to fruition. But, why does this upset us? Is it because the current situation is so terrible? Well, if you’re on vacation, with no worries back at home, and no assignments to do, is it really that terrible if that kayaking tour didn’t happen? It probably isn’t, but the desire for it might make it feel as if it is. Now imagine you spend the remainder of your vacation pursuing this kayaking tour that won’t happen (let’s say the place is all out of kayaks) or focusing on how you weren’t able to go on it. This would only make you feel worse, because you are focusing on not having this one particular thing, which amplifies the feeling of deprivation and disappointment, instead of focusing on enjoying the remaining vacation time. 

The vacation scenario is analogous to constantly wanting to be happy. Happiness is great, but it is not something to be chased when we're unhappy- kind of like love. The more we chase it, the more upset we become due to being reminded (whether we notice or not) of the fact that we don’t currently have it. 

In The Subtle Art of Not Giving A #@%!, writer Mark Manson dives into this topic, what is known in philosophy as “the backwards law,” coined by philosopher Alan Watts- 

    The idea that the more you pursue feeling better all the time, the less satisfied you become, as pursuing something only reinforces the fact that you lack it in the first place.

The more we focus on trying to find a romantic partner at a bar (pre/post-COVID), the more likely we are to feel as if we never will, instead of enjoying the outing. The more we try to do a million things to distract ourselves from being sad, the more likely we are to feel sadder, when we realize that all the Tik Toks in the world aren’t as relieving as having a good cry.

So, next time we catch ourselves stuck in a rut, it might be of use to ask ourselves (of course, this doesn't always apply): am I actually in this unfixable rut with no chance at relief, or am I making it worse on myself by constantly amplifying feelings of deprivation and disappointment instead of attempting to accept and adapt?