We live in a culture that is obsessed with being happy. We wonder if a new partner or a new city or a new adventure will make us happy. We watch ads for food and drugs and products that will allegedly make us happy. But then we move to that new city or take that vacation or eat that cookie and, after an initial surge in happiness, we end up right about where we started. Sorta happy, sorta not.
So should we really be focused on chasing happiness?
To answer that question, I wonder if we are perhaps conflating two concepts into that one all-encompassing word “happiness.” I will call one of them “joy” and the other “happiness.”
I define happiness as a moment-to-moment emotion. One minute you can be happy because someone noticed that you have been working out and looking buff. The next minute you can be sad because you ran into a friend who is struggling in her marriage, and you feel sad remembering how happy they used to be. Happiness, like any feeling, can come and go like clouds rolling across a sky.
I define joy, on the other hand, as an overall contentment and delight with your life. Joy comes from examining the tapestry of the life that you have woven, as mottled and quirky as it might seem in places, and feeling a sense of contentment with where you have been and where you are going. Joy comes from knowing that you are living your life according to your highest values and you own personal mission, whatever it may be.
My proposal is that we should focus on joy, not happiness. The point is not to chase the moment-to-moment thrills, but instead to use your time to build something worth building.
It’s important to decide if you are going to prioritize joy or happiness, because the choices you make will sometimes be different. For example, I am right now sitting on an airplane writing this blog, sandwiched between a woman reading a romance novel called “The Long, Hot Summer” and a man playing candy crush. Would I be happier right now if I were losing myself in a steamy romance? Probably. But writing this blog is the most important thing I can do right now to build that life I love. Discussing these topics with you, in the hopes that they might make even the smallest difference in your life, is what makes mine fulfilling.
We are faced with these choices all the time. Do I work on that side project (joy) or watch Netflix (happiness) tonight? Do I get up early and exercise (joy) or do I sleep in (happiness)? Do I go to that social event that might be a bit intimidating (joy) or do I stay home and relax (happiness)? Joy is usually the good bet.
But note that sometimes, building joy means choosing the happy choice. Sometimes the thread that you most need to weave into the tapestry of your life right now is FUN. I am on this plane next to the romance-novel-reader and candy-crush-player after a wonderful weekend in which I spent an entire spontaneous day with a friend just doing what made us happy. We went swimming, did an Escape the Room, and ended the day Bhangra dancing. It was so much fun, and exactly what I needed. It’s ok to choose happiness if it builds joy.
Focusing on joy should come as a huge relief. It means that it’s ok to have a constant stream of emotions floating through your days—sadness, anger, happiness, excitement, lethargy, guilt, etc. They are all ok, like multicolored fish swimming by you in the stream of your mind. We don’t need to expunge, avoid, destroy, or overcome them in order to chase that elusive feeling of happiness. Instead, we focus on the big picture of the life we are creating that will bring joy. Even in the depths of sadness, we can do that.
Another added benefit is that accepting this stream of emotions gives us more freedom to simply enjoy the happiness when it comes. Take a moment to smile at something adorable that your child said, to feel gratitude for your job, or to thoroughly enjoy that good belly laugh with your friends. Happiness is great! When we are not obsessed with chasing it, we can really appreciate the moments for what they are.
Where are you joyous in your life? Where are you chasing happiness instead of joy? What can you do to create more joy? Write me a note and share!
Photo Courtesy of Brian Uhreen