I read this article on the writings of Allan Watts and it got me thinking about the tension that exists between the pursuit of happiness and the state of feeling happy.
As Watts suggests, too often we are so desperate to be happy and so fearful of being unhappy that we end up in an endless tug-of-war between the two. Pushing. Pulling. Striving. Failing. Judging ourselves and coming up short.
We end up in this situation because as much as we want to feel good, happiness can’t be forced. There is no magic formula for satisfaction, and ironically the more we strive for it the more out of reach it tends to become.
So, can any good come from pursuing happiness?
Yes, but there is an important difference between actively trying to feel happy and doing things that you know will improve your wellbeing.
As a rule, wanting happiness and resisting unhappiness might feel active but they are in fact passive states. They represent an internal battle waged between your thoughts, moods and emotions. You feel bad, but you want to feel happy so you try to quash or deny any feelings of negativity. Or, alternatively you force yourself to feel positive — tell yourself to “stop feeling sorry for yourself” or to “put a smile on your face” — but only end up feeling like a fraud.
Yet waging a mental warfare on unhappiness rarely works, and more often than not only accentuates your feelings of sadness, anger or loneliness.
So, what’s the alternative?
The alternative to thinking is doing. Instead of trying to think yourself happy — take action. Countless studies have demonstrated that taking mindful action can make a big difference to how we feel. Things like:
- practising gratitude
- pursuing tasks with meaning
- random acts of kindness
- flow activities
- time with friends and family
- looking after your health
The challenge however, is to do it without expectation of immediate return. You need to accept that doing something nice for someone won’t always mean you are showered in gratitude, and that sitting down to meditate isn’t a sure fire way to clear your mind. Instead, know that by consistently taking positive steps in the right direction you are putting yourself in the best place possible to live your best life.
Simply put your pursuit for happiness don’t think, act. Don’t want, do.