“It is the paradox of life that the way to miss pleasure is to seek it first. The very first condition of lasting happiness is that a life should be full of purpose, aiming at something outside self.” ~Hugo Black~
It seems obvious that anything we feel is worth achieving – whatever the goal, personal or altruistic – we pursue it “with a passion,” in other words we are willing to work at it. It’s no surprise then that research, by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ed Diener and Laura King revealed that if you’re seeking greater happiness you must put forth “effort in order to be happy.”
It made sense to me, that pursuing happiness might take some “work.” After all, I’ve always been taught that happiness, like meditation (my other “passion,”) is a practice. And a practice, by definition, is a process of working on something.
Enter psychologist Iris Mauss, and his whole new group of studies, which concluded that “the more value people placed on happiness, the less happy they became.” It’s human nature to pursue what you value. But the pursuit has it’s pitfalls and can lead to four mistakes on the road to happiness.
The first mistake is trying to figure out if we’re happy. When we pursue happiness, our goal is to experience more joy and peace. How do we do that? We make comparisons and render judgments. The problem with that is, that our judgment is “intellectual” an evaluation by the ego. Shifting into the ego mode automatically and immediately takes us out of the experience itself.
Second, being inherently optimistic, “we tend to overestimate the emotional impact of positive life events.” (Neuroscience reveals that over 60 percent of us are biologically optimistic when it comes to evaluating ourselves, which could be the reason for our tendency to overestimate.)
Third, while happiness is an experience unique to each of us, evidence shows that self-focused attention reduces feelings of happiness and actually causes depression. While our common sense, and the research, tells us the most effective “happiness practices,” -such as kindness, gratitude or nurturing social relationships – are ones which focus on others.
The fourth mistake in the pursuit of happiness is expecting the “big bang.” When it comes to getting or achieving things we believe will make us happy, studies show that we’re looking for and expecting the big emotional experiences like joy, excitement and sometimes, even, ecstasy. (I’ve found similar expectations from mediators – a belief that there will be a magical and instance transcendence that will take place during meditation.)
Ed Diener’s research concluded that happiness (and would add meditation) is “driven by the frequency, not the intensity, of positive emotions,” and holding that type of expectation isn’t the best path to happiness. This happens because we have a natural tendency to evaluate our experiences holding them to a higher standard, a process which makes it easier for us to be disappointed.
Which is it?
It’s here between the point of putting forth “effort in order to be happy” and the “four mistakes on the road to happiness,” that the paradox in the pursuit of happiness lays.
So, do you give up on finding any “real happiness?” Is your happiness doomed to be transitory, capricious and conditioned?
The answer that positive psychology offers is, don’t give up on happiness.
How then, do you pursue a happiness practice and at the same time avoid becoming less happy in the process?
The answer to all paradox is transcendence; in this case to go beyond the pursuit to the feeling. The seeds of transcendence are found within the “four mistakes” themselves, especially the first one “trying to figure out if you’re happy.”
Happiness will always bring out the best in you. Your happiness is natural. You don’t need to “pursue it,” you just need to let happiness happen. When you are happy you are being happy not thinking happy. The minute you start thinking happy, being happy stops to evaluate the experience.
When you stop trying to figure out if, and when, your happy, you make space for happiness. The practice of happiness begins here, making space for happiness and to be happiness.
The practice of happiness is not a pursuit and it isn’t “work,” at least not in our ordinary understanding of the word, but it is putting forth the “effort in order to be happy.”
It’s a process of feeling good “driven by the frequency, not the intensity, of positive emotions.”
Some of the happiness practices that will help you transcend, which paradoxically have you looking within to your true nature and at the same time moving you beyond self-focused attention (the ego,) are meditation, kindness, gratitude, compassion and loving relationships.
The paradox is solved as you put forth the effort to be happy by applying the happiness practices frequently and letting go of the idea of happiness.
That is when you’ve let happiness happen.
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