There is a lot of advice on the Internet about how to be happier. Some of it is good, some of it is strange and some of it makes me think I must be strange because running will never make me happy. Never ever. But there is one piece of advice that makes me flat out angry.
If you want to be happy, stop trying to be happy.
I've seen this crop up a lot lately (again), and it is usually supported by links to research that is said to prove that the pursuit of happiness makes people unhappy. Part of the problem is that's not exactly what the research says.
What the research says is that relationships are a strong indicator of happiness. That means caring about other people can make you happier, and having an outward focus can be more rewarding than trying to find something to fix inside yourself. It does not mean that ignoring your own needs and desires in an effort to maintain relationships is the choice that will leave you happiest. It doesn't mean your own happiness is irrelevant.
The research also says that people who "set happiness standards that are difficult to obtain," can feel disappointed when they don't achieve those standards. That doesn't mean choosing happiness makes you unhappy. It means thinking you're supposed to be ridiculously happy all the time is unrealistic. It means focusing on happiness as an end result, as opposed to a process, is ineffective.
While the research itself appears to be sound, there is a whole lot being lost in the delivery. The watered down result is hurtful.
Admittedly, I'm neither a scientist nor a researcher. I'm a writer who happens to write about happiness.
I'm also a woman who wondered for a really long time why I couldn't just be as happy as I was supposed to be.
All around me it seemed there was evidence that I should be happy. I should be more grateful. I should just sit down, shut up, and stop worrying about what felt like a giant hole inside of me.
Going that route dang near killed me. Literally. I ignored the signs of depression until I came perilously close to driving my car into a guard rail on the way home from work. Even after getting on anti-depressants, trying to pretend I wasn't looking for happiness stopped me from seeking out marriage counseling until my relationship was lying battered on the floor, gasping for air. Trying to look outwards kept me from coping with all the chaos that was happening inside me.
The problem with the "if you want to be happy, stop looking for happiness" message, is that it makes people who already feel like something is wrong with them feel even more wrong. And, worst of all, it tells them not to do the work that could actually make them happier.
Let's completely forget about the research and the experts and the professionals for a moment. Does it make any sort of sense to pretend not to be looking for happiness while secretly hoping it will find you? That sort of insincere self-deception can't possibly be good for anyone.
I cannot believe that any well-trained professional in the world would advise a client to pretend like a problem doesn't exist in order to solve it. But that's exactly what the "pursuing happiness makes you unhappy" articles suggest.
Sure, there are people in this world who have everything they need to be happy and who could benefit from a less self-centered outlook. No doubt. But there are also lots and lots of people who are actually unhappy. Their lives don't line up with their values, they feel like they don't fit, or they're stuffing down all of their "bad" feelings in an attempt to be as happy as they think they should. Abandoning the pursuit of happiness will not help those people.
Admitting they are in fact unhappy, will do them far more good.
Hearing they aren't alone will help.
Being told that they can figure out what's going on inside them can offer them hope.
And, I think teaching them how to more effectively pursue and choose happiness can, in fact, make them happier.
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