With Happiness, Don’t Go for a Gusher

In our competitive culture, we usually think “more is better.” Being Number One, winning at all costs, and “having the most” is deeply ingrained in our psyche as real success. This model of going for the max is often erroneously applied to our own well-being. People mistakenly think intense delight is a sign that their attempt at awakening joy is truly successful.

However, when we look for bells and whistles as indications of true happiness we’re misunderstanding a very important principle: Setting a high bar of intense happiness works against true well-being. Although I’m all for enjoying peak experiences when they arise, measuring that ideal against a moderate level of okayness can easily render this moment as “not good enough.”

One of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoons starts off with a smiling Calvin saying, “Here I am happy and content.” In the next frame, he further reflects: “But not euphoric.” Third frame: “So I’m no longer content. My day is completely ruined.” Last frame: “I should have stopped thinking while I was ahead.”

When people do my online Awakening Joy course, they often come with ideas of what joy is supposed to look like. A complaint I sometimes hear is, “I’m trying really hard to be joyful and it’s not working.” That kind of efforting to be joyful only leads to frustration! Instead, I recommend that one simply begins to notice moments of feeling okay. If you tend to have a life filled with intense drama, I often suggest being aware of moments when you’re not miserable. That’s a good start.

We find what we look for. Neuroscience calls this phenomenon the brain’s “confirmation bias.” Your brain tends to see what it believes to be true and misses whatever doesn’t confirm its hypothesis. If you don’t think you experience much true happiness because you’re holding an image that it should be a peak experience of ecstasy, you probably will keep confirming that belief.

However, if you see moments of “okayness”–moments where you’re not suffering–as moments worthy of appreciation, you open the channel to true well-being. And the more you notice and take them in, the stronger that flow of true well-being naturally becomes–not through force but through wise attention. As neuroscience expert Rick Hanson says: “The brain is like Teflon for positive experiences and Velcro for negative ones.” We need to train ourselves to appreciate and take in those simple moments of life where things are actually okay.

There are studies that show over-pursuing happiness actually may be detrimental to your mental and physical health. People who have “emodiversity”—meaning they express a full range of emotions including anger, worry and sadness—are actually healthier than those whose range tends to be mostly on the positive side. In a study surveying over 35,000 French speakers researchers found that “people high in emodiversity were less likely to be depressed than people high in positive emotion alone.” In another study of 1,300 Belgians those with greater emodiversity used less medications, had less doctor visits, did more exercise, had better diets and had all around better health than those with more limited emotional range.

Only letting in intense happiness can affect our creative juices too. In one study measuring mood and creativity, Mark Alan Davis found that when we experience extreme or intense happiness we tend not to tap into our creativity as much. In extreme cases we can get manic and lose our connection to creativity. Not that you need to be melodramatic to be creative. Happy people are creative too. But at some point only going for the gusto can be counter-productive if you’re trying to access your muse.

Another study found that those who are consistently on the high end of happiness curve tend to be less flexible in adapting to challenging situations. It becomes harder to adjust when things go south. What’s more, those who are in constant pursuit of positive experiences are more likely to engage in risky behaviors like sexual promiscuity and substance abuse. This extreme happiness/risky behavior syndrome was also confirmed in a 1993 study. Children who were regarded as “highly cheerful” tended to have a higher probability of mortality as adults probably due to riskier behavior.

Another paradox is that when we try too hard to attain happiness we may be setting ourselves up for its opposite. Researcher Iris Mauss has shown that sometimes people over-strive for happiness. Trying to achieve some unrealistic standard of well-being can actually end up leading to major disappointment. It can turn into a vicious cycle where the harder you try for happiness the more elusive it becomes.

It’s also important to note that different kinds of happiness affect us in different ways. “Eudaimonic” happiness, that is well-being associated with purpose and meaning has a very different flavor from “hedonic” happiness, which is associated with our personal pleasure. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, those whose happiness tends to come from actions like expressing kindness or accomplishing something aligned with their life purpose have a stronger immune system and tend to have better health.

So perhaps it’s better not to try so hard to be happy. When you let go of looking for ecstatic states, you can find joy in the most commonplace moments. Edith, a student in Germany, had somehow equated joy with intense positive experiences. But when she stopped looking for those and simply opened up to a simple feeling of well-being she started to experience things very differently. She put it this way:

“I noticed how much joy there already is and how I had somehow looked for a kind of super-mundane, “spiritual” joy, more profound and lasting than our ordinary joy, that I would only reach if I practiced hard and in the right way. By having this concept, and by looking for this other kind of joy, I had missed out on a lot of “ordinary joy” moments. As I focused on them, appreciated them and felt them more fully, I was so happy and sometimes almost overwhelmed at all the joy and blessings in my life.”

I remember many years ago hearing a wise teacher give instructions on the heart practice called “Loving-kindness” meditation. He said that sometimes the word “loving-kindness” can seem so lofty and noble that we imagine it’s beyond our reach. He suggested connecting with the simple feeling of “kindness” or “friendliness” towards oneself or others. That’s so much more accessible and it will start the gentle flow of good-heartedness we’re looking for. It really worked. As I let go of getting a gold-star in my loving-kindness practice I simply enjoyed extending good will and let myself be touched by my kind heart.

In some Eastern philosophical models of happiness, refined states of well-being are considered ultimately more sustainable and more satisfying. As wonderful as it is, rapture is considered a courser level of happiness that, after awhile, becomes jangling to the system. Going up the ladder of refined states, gladness, happiness, and contentment are considered qualities that are much more developed and fulfilling. Ultimately, deep peace is the most satisfying state of all and is said to be the pre-cursor to true enlightenment.

So if you’re trying to cultivate genuine happiness within yourself, you might consider letting go of trying to experience a gusher of intensity. Awakening joy comes naturally from truly appreciating the simple moments of well-being in our lives. Don’t miss them! Once you start having your radar out for them you’ll see them everywhere. 

James Baraz is the co-author of Awakening Joy and Awakening Joy for Kids and a co-founding teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center. Registration is now open for James’ popular 5-month Awakening Joy: 10 Steps to a Happier Life course (starting end of January) to help you access the innate well-being within you. You can participate live or online and can find out more here.