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The Myth of Happiness

As many of us are now experiencing the often ‘happier’ days of spring perhaps it is an opportune time to question the concept of happiness and in ‘feeling good.’

Jungian author James Hollis suggested that, “Feeling good may be a very poor measure of the worth of one’s life.” He furthered queried, “Think of the people you truly admire or inspire you. How much of their life was about ‘feeling good’” or being happy?

According to Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” Jung agreed, stating, “The more you deliberately seek happiness the more sure you are not to find it.”

Hawthorne’s quote reminds me of the scene in the film, Under the Tuscan Sun, in which the wise eccentric widow, Katherine, advised Francis: “Listen, when I was a little girl I used to spend hours looking for ladybugs. Finally, I’d just give up and fall asleep in the grass. When I woke up, they were crawling all over me.”

Much like butterflies and ladybugs, happiness is fleeting. Hollis suggested, “Our goal is not happiness, which is evanescent and impossible to sustain; it is meaning which broadens us and carries us towards our destiny.”

Studies have identified a variety of intentional activities that boost our well-being & sense of meaning:

  • nurturing social connections
  • expressing gratitude
  • positive thinking
  • forgiveness
  • acts of kindness
  • living in the present
  • working to achieve meaningful goals that put us in the flow
  • physical activities to nurture the body
  • meditation
  • belief in a higher power or purpose

Society’s focus on achieving and maintaining happiness is a fallacy. It is impossible to live a completely happy life. To live such a life would negate half (or more) of our experiences, resulting in an unbalanced existence.

Jung stated that, “Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.”

In fact, not feeling good is often unacceptable. We learned very early not to express any so-called negative feelings. Everything had to be ‘fine’ or ‘good.’ Valid feelings of discomfort, sadness and hurt were often negated or minimized. This results in a false judgment that there is something wrong with us or the world when we experience such feelings.

As the sea is beautiful not only in calm but also in storm, so is happiness found not only in peace but also in strife.”
[When we can dance in the rain!].  ~ Ivan Panin

Oh, and to answer the proverbial question – ‘Does money buy happiness?’ – studies show that winners’ levels of happiness jump up when the money is first won but return to baseline less than a year later. Once our security needs (food, shelter, and safety) have been met, more material wealth doesn’t guarantee more happiness. In fact, studies show that materialistic values are a strong predictor of unhappiness.  Similarly, studies show that physical beauty also does not ensure greater happiness.

Instead of seeking happiness, perhaps it is more meaningful to value states of well-being, satisfaction, contentment, fulfillment, peace, acceptance, groundedness, trust and gratitude. When this shift away from seeking happiness occurs it allows one to more fully appreciate all that life has to offer.

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Diane Hancox, MA, CCC provides counselling services to Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Nanaimo and Vancouver Island.