The Pitfalls to Pursuing Happiness

True happiness is internal.

Posted Sep 19, 2018

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When you invest time in improving your life, your inner world will become a happier place. In the meantime, your outer world may not reflect the change you’re experiencing inside. And this is one of the fundamental principles of true happiness: True happiness is internal. One problem that often arises as your inner world becomes a more peaceful, beautiful place, is that you’ll notice the difference between you and those around you. As your happiness increases, your relationship to others will likely change. In this post, we’ll explore how. 

Imagine you’re married. Throughout your marriage, you and your spouse have led sedentary lives. One day, you decide it’s time to change your physically inactive lifestyle and begin a workout routine. You join a gym and begin exercising regularly. As the days and weeks pass, you lose weight and feel better. 

Meanwhile, the hour or so you spend at the gym is time you used to spend with your spouse. While you want your spouse to join you and become healthier, your significant other isn’t interested. Sticking to your workout routine will then mean you’ll be spending less time with your spouse. 

This is a simple example that illustrates the risks associated with growth. Improving our lives requires making different choices. In the exercise example, you’re choosing to hit the gym rather than spend time with your spouse. While you’d enjoy working out with your significant other, you can’t force it. 

Change as an Unwelcomed Surprise 

You may become excited thinking about family members and close friends making changes in their lives based on the improvement they see in yours. Unfortunately, they may not respond the way you’d hoped for. In fact, your increased happiness may come as an unwelcome surprise. For example, imagine you had a friend you partied with. You had many nights where the two of you would drink (perhaps to excess) and stay out late. 

Part of your growth means you no longer party all night. So how do you think your friend will react? Your change can actually be a big turn off in that person’s eyes. 

Similar to deciding to party less, happiness too is a choice. And by choosing happiness, you’re also acknowledging that not everyone in your life will join you on your journey. This also means you probably won’t spend as much time with them.  

This is one of the harsh realities of growth. On the growth journey, you’re presented the question, “Do I want to grow? Or do I want to stay stuck where I was with the people around me and suffer along with them?” 

Happiness and Non-attachment 

To be truly, deeply, peaceful and happy, where we flow with life rather than fight it, where we accept and love what is rather than resist it, we must let go of our attachments. We must fully embrace the fundamental truth of change. Put simply, this means change is inevitable.

While we can prefer to have certain people and things in our lives, an insistence on having them is the path to suffering. And relationships are the biggest attachments many people have. Relationships include our children, parents, siblings, significant others, and friends. 

We can be non-attached and still love. Love and non-attachment are compatible. In fact, when we are non-attached we can have the capacity to love even more. We are fully invested in the people in our lives when they are present because we realize this can change in an instant. For example, they or we may move, leave, or die. This understanding of the transience of life, can compel us to value the time we have with the people we care for. 

I call this a “super enjoy-er” attitude. Rather than take the people in our lives for granted, thinking they’ll always be around, we appreciate them even more. A super enjoy-er attitude can motivate us to take our presence in other’s lives more seriously. Instead of engaging in superficial conversations, for instance, we are motivated to take our relationships to a deeper and more meaningful level. 

At the same time, accepting the fundamental truth of change means that the people we care about may not join us on our journey. This doesn’t necessarily mean we will abandon those around us. For instance, I have cousins I grew up with. Throughout childhood, we had been very close. But as time has passed, our lives have diverged. We don’t see each other as often as we used to, and they aren’t privy to many of the things I value as an adult. While we may not have as much in common as we used to, when we are together, we enjoy one another’s company. This example illustrates that change can be subtle too. It doesn’t always require leaving behind those we care about. 

The Price of Happiness 

I believe that all of us are capable of leading beautiful, happy lives. In fact, much of my work as a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice is to help my clients become happier. While I think most of us would agree that pursuing happiness is worthwhile, improving our lives comes at a price. 

Indeed, seeking happiness can be a high stakes endeavor and the changes we experience can be dramatic and downright scary. At the same time, if we continue to work on ourselves and grow, we’re also learning to adapt and flow with the currents of life rather than against them. 

Through our commitment to pursuing happiness, we become skillful at embracing the uncertainty of life. We realize we have no idea what will happen next. At the same time, we know that no matter what happens in our outside world, we can adapt and lead beautiful lives because we recognize that true happiness comes from within.