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What happiness isn’t

Reviewed by Kirsten Davin

A beachball with a happy face floating in the water.

I used to think that happiness was an emotion we felt when good things happened to us, or from having positive experiences. But after years of struggle, stagnation, personal development, and change, I now know that it’s so much more than that.

Aristotle once said, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” And he’s not wrong—we all want to be happy, no matter our age, gender, background, ethnicity, culture, or religion.

I used to go looking for happiness in all the wrong places without even realizing it. I tried to do what everyone else was doing. They looked happy, so why wasn’t I?

At some point, I realized that discovering the truth about happiness has a lot to do with understanding all the things that it isn’t. And it turns out that happiness isn’t a lot of things.

Here’s what I learned.

Happiness isn’t the same as excitement.

New experiences are exhilarating and fun. And they make us happy, don’t they? 

Think of that time you went zip lining for the first time, had your first kiss, or took a vacation and traveled to a new place. Chances are you found yourself basking in the afterglow of it.

Dopamine is released in the brain when we experience novel things, which creates pleasurable feelings in the body. Because it feels so good, it’s easy to mistake this experience for happiness.

But that rush of excitement usually doesn’t last very long, and it’s not sustainable. You can’t feel that way all the time or you’ll quickly become exhausted. Some people still try, however, and this could be due to the fact that they have a novelty-seeking personality trait, but having more novel experiences than the average person doesn’t necessarily make them happier people.

Excitement is an emotion that comes and goes. Happiness, on the other hand, is something more constant than that.

Happiness doesn’t necessarily make a meaningful life.

You can certainly live a meaningful life and be happy, but they’re not the same thing. When researchers looked at what it means to live a happy life versus a meaningful life, they discovered a few key distinctions:

  1. Happy people tend to focus on satisfying their wants and needs.
  2. Happiness involves the present moment while meaningfulness involves the past, present, and future—plus how they’re all connected.
  3. Meaningfulness is associated with giving more to others.
  4. Meaningfulness typically involves a certain degree of stress and challenge.
  5. Self-expression is an important part of living a meaningful life.

Consider a couple who decided to dedicate their lives to traveling the world because they couldn’t start the family they had always dreamed of due to infertility. They’ve always wanted to travel the world, and are happy with their freedom to do so and the experiences they have. However, their lives may not feel as meaningful to them because they really wanted children in the first place.

On the other hand, consider a couple who has three kids, a dog, a cat, and one elderly parent to look after. They may experience a lot of stress and feel exhausted most of the time as they work tirelessly around the clock to take care of their family—and they may even feel guilty for not feeling happy about it. Having such a rich family life might feel incredibly meaningful to them, but the stress of it all can also make it difficult—perhaps even impossible at times—to experience happiness.

Lasting happiness doesn’t come from achieving things.

From the moment we’re born, we’re expected to be in a constant state of learning, doing, and achieving. From speaking our first words and learning to walk, to getting into college and securing a good job—all of it involves living up to certain expectations. When we do this successfully, we’re praised for it, and as a result, we feel good about ourselves.

This is how we learn to associate achievement with happiness. When we don’t achieve the expected things, we don’t feel good about ourselves. More often than not, we tend to feel the opposite—disappointed, embarrassed, regretful, guilty, or ashamed.

But achievements are characteristics of ego—the part of ourselves that constantly needs to feel validated and important in society. There’s certainly nothing wrong with achieving things in life, but the happiness you might get from it is always fleeting. No matter what you achieve, you’ll eventually adapt to it and start looking for newer, better ways to experience those feelings again.

Happiness isn’t the absence of negative feelings.

It isn’t realistic to never feel negative emotions, and it isn’t healthy to try to avoid them either. When it comes to happiness, it’s more about how you deal with the negative emotions when they come up than it is about doing whatever it takes to never feel negative emotions ever again.

Do you ruminate on them and let them consume you? Or do you accept them, understand that they’re a part of life, and then move on? Happy people tend to be more resilient and bounce back from negative experiences relatively quickly. They don’t dwell on negative emotions.

Happiness is a state of being that depends on a huge range of factors—not just the circumstances you’re in. Having an open mind and being aware of the different aspects of life that can affect your happiness is important. You have to be willing to put in the effort to seek out ways you can maximize those aspects so you’re more likely to hold onto those feelings of happiness, even when times get tough.

Happiness isn’t something you reserve for later.

Happiness isn’t a destination that you reach and then suddenly you’re done. It’s more like a way of life that you continuously work on. It’s something that you experience in the present moment, and it’s always changing.

We tend to say to ourselves, “I’ll be happy when I finally meet my soulmate,” or “I’ll be happy when I make X amount of money.” But happiness isn’t something you go out and find. It’s already there inside you, waiting to be discovered. All that’s required is for you to pay attention to it.

This is where gratitude comes into play. It’s one of the simplest and most effective ways to help you connect with happiness. Being grateful for what you have, even when it’s difficult to be happy, is a sign that you’re open to finding happiness in your life, no matter what.

Happiness isn’t the same for everyone.

It’s been said that happiness is what you make it. In other words, nobody else but you can decide how to be happy.

This was personally one of my biggest struggles, because it meant having to question everything I was striving for in life. Was I doing it to make myself happy, or was I doing it because others told me it would make me happy?

And that’s a question you’ll have to answer for yourself too. What makes you truly and genuinely happy? What lifts you up, makes you feel alive, and sparks an almost spiritual sensation—like your soul is expanding beyond its current state of being?

Only you can answer that question. It’s important to be honest with yourself and figure out what truly brings you happiness. Once you know that, you can start living a life that’s more in line with your own values and what makes you happy, rather than someone else’s idea of happiness.

You may even want to talk to a professional about it. Sometimes, having someone else who can listen to you talk about what might make you happy can make it easier to uncover what you actually want.

Happiness is within reach.

Aristotle also once said, “Happiness is an expression of the soul in considered actions.” I imagine what he means by this is that happiness is a journey that not only takes effort to pursue, but also courage to be true to yourself.

At this point, you have a pretty good idea of what happiness isn’t. Now it’s up to you to discover what it is.

About the author

Elise Burley is a member of the therapist.com editorial team. She has more than a decade of professional experience writing and editing on a variety of health topics, including for several health-related e-commerce businesses, media publications, and licensed professionals. When she’s not working, she’s usually practicing yoga or off the grid somewhere on her latest canoe camping adventure.

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