Why Are We Unhappy When We’re Working So Hard to Be Happy? Maybe We’re Pursuing the Wrong Thing

Most of us want to be “happy.” As parents we want that for our children as well, but are we in pursuit of the wrong thing? Interestingly, even when we do achieve happiness or contentment or pleasure, it tends to be temporary, particularly if we associate happiness with acquiring something. The reward is short lived.

Also, if we’re constantly in search of happiness we likely find ourselves in a cycle of pursuit, short term reward then back to pursuit. It is not only unfulfilling, but it is ultimately exhausting and includes periods of disappointment and frustration when we’re “not happy.”

If this is correct, and a great deal of research suggests that it is, then what might be a better alternative?

Both my personal experience and a growing body of research suggest that building purpose into one’s life is much more sustainable and satisfying than pleasure, happiness, etc. This does not mean that feeling contentment or pleasure is bad nor that we shouldn’t want those experiences. It simply means that having a life worth living and feeling fulfillment over time is much more likely to come from nurturing a reason for being than from the pursuit of self-gratification.

More than a half century of living, and my more recent work as a psychotherapist, has taught me that enjoying and appreciating life is based on a fairly simple set of human needs. I’ve also come to understand that not very many of us base key decisions in our lives on those needs, which explains at least part of the dissonance that so many people are feeling!

In addition to purpose, having healthy human relationships, some sense of spirituality, gratitude, and underlying health and wellness are genuinely foundational to long term fulfillment and a life worth living. You may have noticed that this foundation is based primarily on internally derived meaning and sustenance rather than external sources of reward. It is also based on our existence being additive and beneficial at some level to others.

Although the model may be fairly simple, unlearning lifetimes of contrary beliefs and behavior is not. And even if we come to understand that we’ve likely been sold a bill of goods about much in life, actually changing how we live and what we value requires deep work and acceptance of new truths. For many of us, it actually requires a life changing crisis to nudge us forward. Regardless, it is possible at any point in life to shift from an unfulfilling pursuit of self-gratification based on external rewards to an internally focused pursuit of purpose and meaning.

And even though we all face different levels of challenge and privilege, identifying our purpose in life, creating some level of human connection, recognizing our relationship to something bigger than ourselves, and acknowledging gratitude is possible in almost all situations. In fact, one of the most eloquent descriptions of this notion can be found in Victor Frankl’s memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, about surviving nearly three years in Nazi concentration camps in World War II. While few of us will experience that depth of existential crisis, it shows the potential of human resilience.

If you’d like more information on how to implement the model described here in your own life, including both purpose and wellness, please reach out to me via a contact form or directly via email at wkp@wallacekpond.com.

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