For many people, the pursuit of happiness seems like a never-ending one. And yes, I would agree, but only if you’re focusing on the wrong things.
You see, society has told us: if you get this promotion, if you can afford to build your dream home, if you can travel to an exotic destination every year…you will be happy.
The truth is, yes, certain things might make our life easier, but not necessarily happier. If we’re talking about happiness, we must be careful not to focus on the wrong things.
In this article, I’ll discuss seven things that people think will make them happy, but actually won’t. Let’s dive in!
1) Money and material possessions
Of course, I’m going to lead with money. After all, it’s the top thing many of us prioritize.
Don’t get me wrong, money is important, absolutely. It’s essential in providing us with comfort and security.
But when we begin equating our self-worth with our net worth, and when we start to value things over experiences and relationships, we set ourselves up for a life of dissatisfaction.
Remember the story of Midas, the king who wanted everything he touched to turn to gold? That story is the perfect cautionary tale for the love of money, isn’t it?
Just as Midas found out what truly mattered in the end, so should we realize (although I hope we do so much, much earlier in life) that there’s more to life than getting rich.
I learned this the hard way myself. When I landed my first high-paying job, I was over the moon. All of a sudden, I could afford fancy dinners and take expensive vacations.
But after a while, it all felt hollow. The initial rush of being able to afford stuff I used to wish for wore off. Only to be replaced with the sobering thought that to keep up this lifestyle, I’d have to…
…work long hours.
…deal with stress all day everyday.
…constantly set aside family time.
The bottomline: My relationships suffered, I got sick from overworking, and irony of ironies, I was too busy making money to actually enjoy its perks.
Speaking of perks, many people mistake pleasure for happiness. It’s understandable though, considering how both are positive emotions.
What’s the difference, then?
Pleasure is immediate, temporary, and delightful to the senses. Think luxurious spa treatments, eating gourmet food, a wild night of partying…you get the picture.
Happiness, on the other hand, is a quieter sense of satisfaction. It’s a more enduring state of well-being because there’s a sense of fulfillment and contentment with one’s life as a whole.
Now, pleasure is just one aspect of happiness, and of course, it’s okay to indulge every now and then. We all need those perks and pick-me-ups, after all.
But if your life revolves solely around the pursuit of these intense highs, it can be easy to get sucked into a hedonistic vortex, where you’re constantly in search of the next thrill.
You might miss out on the deeper and more lasting forms of happiness.
3) Other people’s approval
In Benjamin Alire Saenz’s novel “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe,” the first chapter begins with this:
“The problem with my life was that it was someone else’s idea.”
As a former people-pleaser, that line resonated with me strongly. I know just how it feels to live a life that hinges on other people’s approval.
Not only is it exhausting, but it’s never satisfying. And if you don’t swivel from that focus early enough, you’d only be filled with regret in the end.
That reminds me of one of the top 5 regrets of the dying, according to palliative nurse Bronnie Ware: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
So, forget what other people think about you and your life. If you want to be happy, you’ve got to focus on the approval that matters most – yours.
4) Other people, period
This one’s for the romantics. Or the overly involved parents. Or the caretakers of sick family members.
Look, caring for our loved ones is natural. And it’s only right. The problem is, when we let our lives revolve around them, the first thing that goes is the self.
I’m not just talking about self-care, although that’s certainly an issue. I’m also talking about identity.
As in, who am I if I wasn’t X’s partner? Who am I if my kids weren’t in the picture?
As noble as our intentions are, it’s important to remember that our self-worth isn’t tied to the role we play in other people’s lives.
Build a life outside of those roles, one where your real self isn’t neglected. Only when you can reach your own fullness can you be truly happy.
5) Keeping up with the Joneses
Still on the topic of other people, let’s stop for a minute and talk about comparison. More specifically, keeping up with other people.
One of my old college friends suffers from this. From the outside, she looks absolutely on point – always dressed in the best clothes, a designer bag on her arm, and the latest iPhone in her hand.
But behind the scenes, she was heavily in debt. All because of her compulsion to upgrade everything she owned all the time to measure up to her wealthy friends. To maintain social status.
Not only was she financially strapped, she also felt empty inside. And exhausted. Because keeping up never ever ends.
As sad as that sounds, there’s a little bit of her in every one of us. After all, comparing ourselves to others is a natural human inclination.
However, it becomes a real problem – one that truly gets in the way of happiness – when we do it too much, to the point that we feel less than if we don’t have what others have.
If this is something you’re struggling with, it might be time to take a look inwards. If there was no one else around to compare yourself to, what would make you happy?
Hopefully, that question would be enough to jumpstart some self-reflection. Figure out what your core values are and what kind of person you’d like to be without everyone else’s noise drowning you out.
Does everything in your life need to be in order? Does your living room need to be pristine all the time, no sign of clutter or toys underfoot? Do you spend hours on a task because of unnecessary tweaking?
It’s all well and good to have high standards, but if perfection seems to be the running theme in your life, it might be harder for you to feel happy.
You see, perfection is an illusion. And what’s more, it breeds discontent. When we’re chasing after perfection, happiness can’t have room to stay. Your inner critic won’t let it!
How to unclench and release: focus on progress. When you’re seeing how far you’ve come from Point A to your current state, you’ll be more inclined to see how great you already are!
7) The past
Who hasn’t had their share of regrets, mistakes, and missed opportunities? We all have. And unfortunately, for some of us, they get stuck in those pits of regrets.
And how about those who are stuck in their glory days? In those fabulous teenage years when they were the captain of the football team or the prom queen?
That’s a surefire way to be unhappy. You see, the past is the past. Donezo. Finito. Nothing you do can bring it back.
So whether you’re wallowing in regret or yearning for the good ol’ days, dwelling in the past won’t make you truly happy. It just keeps you from enjoying the gift you have right now – the present.
Not everyone gets to have that gift, so stop replaying those old scenes. Consider the glory of today’s sunrise, today’s smiling stranger, today’s steady job, and whatever else you’ve got going for you right now.
You’d be surprised at how those little things add up to big joys, if only you’d notice them!
So, what should we focus on then?
Well, that’s a topic for another day, but in a nutshell, think about what you’d want to see when you look back on your life.
At least, that’s what I do. And for me, what comes up are: the quality of my relationships, the memories I’ve made with my loved ones, and the purposefulness of my existence.
As long as I make those my focus, I can feel happy every single day.
Yours could be different. So figure out what would fill your heart with contentment, peace and quiet. Then be intentional in your actions to make sure you’re living out those values.
When you do this, you’ll discover that happiness isn’t actually hard to attain. It’s simply a matter of focusing on the right things.
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