The struggle to find happiness is a common reason people seek therapy. They often enter into my office saying, "I've tried everything, but I don't feel happier." While some of them struggled with mental health problems like depression, many others just weren't finding their pursuits of happiness to be fruitful.
Much to their frustration, their efforts to to become happier people weren't yielding the results they'd hoped. Many of them had read countless articles and books on how to be happy. Yet, they weren't becoming the extraordinarily happy people they'd hoped to become.
And who could blame them? The benefits of happy people are undeniable. Happiness can help you live a longer, healthier life.
But the truth is, many people have no idea how to become happier. In fact, some people's pursuits of happiness backfire, causing them to become more miserable than ever.
The Biggest Happiness Misconception
Eating that extra helping of food to avoid feeling hungry, treating yourself to those concert tickets so you don't miss out on time with friends, and skipping your workout because you don't feel like exercising, may seem like opportunities to temporarily boost your mood. But that way of thinking could actually be getting in the way of living a happier life.
The biggest misconception about happiness is that the path to happiness involves avoiding pain. But pain is actually a necessary part of happiness.
Research shows pain can lead to pleasure in several ways:
1. Pain helps you recognize pleasure. If you felt happy all the time, you wouldn't recognize it as happiness. You need to experience life at the opposite end of the spectrum sometimes to recognize and appreciate happiness.
2. Relief from pain boosts pleasure. While pain isn't a pleasurable experience, the relief from pain is. Studies show when pain goes away, you experience increased happiness, above and beyond the level of happiness you'd experience if you never had any pain at all.
3. Pain forms social bonds. It's likely that you relate to other people more easily when you've both endured similar painful events in your life. Pain promotes empathy, which is essential to social connection.
The bonding caused by pain even increases cooperation among people. Volunteers often come together to clean up after a natural disaster because they experienced pain and witnessed suffering together. Or, remember the ice bucket challenge?
4. Pain gives you permission to reward yourself. There's a reason a cold beer tastes better after you've mowed the lawn or a hot chocolate tastes better after you've shoveled the driveway. Enduring pain actually makes you enjoy your rewards more.
When you've worked out, or completed a difficult task, you'll be more likely to give yourself permission to enjoy a reward. Not only will you feel less guilt over splurging, but your senses will be heightened and you'll actually appreciate the reward more.
5. Pain captures your attention. Pain makes you aware of what is going on right now. Whether you're dealing with a bad headache or you're experiencing some serious emotional pain, you'll be focused on what is going on in the moment.
While that may not seem like a good thing on the surface, being in the moment is a skill people try to learn through meditation, mindfulness, and yoga. Being in the moment means you'll be less likely to ruminate about what happened yesterday or worry about what could happen tomorrow. Learning how to stay in the moment-even when you're not in pain-can help you live a happier life.
Don't Fear Pain
There's a lot of truth to the saying, "Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional." Happiness isn't the absence of pain. Instead, the secret to living a happier life involves believing you have enough mental strength to embrace pain and learn from your experiences.