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If Happiness Weren’t the Goal, We’d Have Much Better Mental Health

‘It’s not that you’re too sad. It’s that you’re trying too hard to be happy.’

MEL Magazine

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Eric G. Wilson woke up one morning in 2002 and realized he wanted to die. Though he had what seemed on paper to be the perfect life — beautiful wife, newborn baby girl and professional success as a writer and academic — he was deeply depressed and debilitatingly so, a feeling that was worsened by the fact that nothing he did seemed to help. He’d tried every non-pharmaceutical fix known to man — yoga, meditation, exercise, a hearty dose of “fake it ‘till you make it.” If it was supposed to make you happier, he gave it the old college try. Hell, he’d even put himself on a steady drip of salads, hopeful that honoring his body with nutritional lettuces could lift him out of his funk. But, no dice — his sadness was spiraling out of control, and he needed help, fast.

Luckily for him, help came in the form of a good psychotherapist whose surprisingly simple advice would alter the course of his life. “You know what your problem is?” he asked Wilson during one of their earlier sessions. “It’s not that you’re too sad. It’s that you’re trying too hard to be happy.”

Happiness is nice, his psychotherapist told him, but when it’s viewed as constant pleasure and fulfillment, it can be an unrealistic standard to live by. For many people, it invites failure by setting the bar at an impossible height, one that can rarely be reached for any appreciable amount of time through expected avenues like marriage, kids, professional success or material gain. A better option for Wilson, his psychotherapist advised, would be to lean into his feelings of melancholia. “In your case, being melancholy just makes you a realist,” he explained. “Life is more suffering than happiness, and you have to get comfortable with that. Even if that means you’re anxious, yearning or neurotic, that’s okay, because it means you’re living your truth. That’s what gives you power.”

In other words, sometimes trying to be happy can make you pretty damn depressed. But if you lean into your dark parts and let go of happiness as your ultimate goal, you might actually get somewhere. And get somewhere Wilson did — this “extremely liberating” realization led him to write Against Happiness, a best-selling book which presents the unpopular opinion that striving too hard for joy and contentment can do a lot more harm than good.

According to Wilson, this is because many Americans subscribe to a concept of personal happiness that’s impossible to attain. “In this country,” he explains, “stereotypical happiness looks like a trouble-free life. It’s symbolized by the suburban housing development — architecturally repetitious, gated, homogeneous — and is intimately related to the property and possessions we own.” (Interestingly, the famous first line of the Declaration of Independence is based on John Locke’s “Second Treatise on Government,” where he argues that everyone has a right to life, liberty and — this part’s clutch — property.)

This belief underlies the American fixation on finding the “right” partner, doing work we’re “passionate” about and constantly honoring our “purpose,” whatever that may be. In many cases, this can make it seem like constant fulfilment and satisfaction were our only options for being. “A lot of people don’t feel good about themselves because they have unrealistic expectations about what the good life should be,” Wilson says. “There’s this [well-documented] message that if you’re not happy, there’s something seriously wrong.”

Actually, for people striving to meet the manufactured levels of glee spewed at us by social media and commercial advertising, that might be the case. According to happiness researcher Emiliana Simon-Thomas of the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, putting too much pressure on ourselves to be happy — at least in the stereotypical way described above — can lead to some very negative outcomes. “When people consider happiness in more pleasure-focused, materialistic or status-driven ways — or expect to be cheerful and enthusiastic all the time like you see online — it’s quite harmful to mental health,” she says.

There are several ways ruthlessly pursuing this brand of happiness can backfire. One study revealed that “excessive” happiness — meaning it’s disproportional to the situation — can hinder a person’s ability to connect with others. Another, from the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, found that expecting yourself to be smiley and carefree all the time makes you feel like time is slipping through your hands. In fact, even just striving to feel cheerful might make you more depressed — according to this hunk of research, the harder someone tries to be the prescribed kind of happy, the more likely they are to wind up feeling disappointed and disillusioned.

And although Americans spend more time and money chasing after happiness than any other country in the world, we’re still one of the most anxious and least happy of all the developed nations. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five Americans have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and depression diagnoses are up 33 percent since 2013. Given that knowledge, it’s not surprising that we medicate at unprecedented rates and spend tens of billions of dollars per year buying into the products and services the commercialized self-help industry promises will make the boo-boo of sadness go away. Pretty ironic for a country that has the “pursuit of happiness” forever emblazoned into its Constitution, no?

Of course, the type of rabid happiness that can be bad for mental health is entirely different from the more holistic, nuanced kind most researchers and experts agree is healthy to adopt and work toward. According to Simon-Thomas, this type of happiness can be described as a “state of subjective well-being in which someone is able to experience positive emotions when things are going well (or even neutrally), can recover from life’s difficulties with ease and grace and feels like their life matters (that is, that you somehow are contributing in a meaningful way to something greater than yourself).”

Such happiness is actually great for you — not only does a positive affect enhance your social resources and cognitive capacities, but it can also lead to better nutrition, make you more likely to exercise, increase your immune system and lead to overall better physical health. It can even improve your memory and make it easier for you to get ahead at work (amongst many other benefits). That’s why Simon-Thomas believes the risk here isn’t happiness itself, but rather the tendency to judge oneself persistently in a way that “evokes anxiety or despair regarding any kind of goal.”

But unfortunately, that’s exactly what many of us do with happiness. Though Simon-Thomas says most of us are able to toe the line between internalizing happiness as “media-fueled, perpetual pleasure” and the more “holistic, genuine” definition listed above, advertising and social media more frequently ping us with the former, more negative version. That means it can be easy, at times, to feel poorly about yourself if your mood doesn’t square up with what you see around you.

All of which raises an important question: If the pursuit of happiness is making us crazy — and has us hooked on antidepressants and dubious quick-fixes like laughter yoga — what else is there to pursue? There has to be something else to live for other than the impossible dream of 24/7 glee, which Simon-Thomas stresses, is an entirely different thing than genuine happiness. After all, most of us need something to chase in order to get out of bed in the morning — otherwise, we’d just stay there and eat toast for 20 to 40 years until we die.

As it turns out, plenty of household names have asked themselves this same question in search of a more attainable pursuit. Oscar Wilde, for one, believed humanity’s highest purpose had nothing to do with joy, but should instead be focused on self-expression and a gradual “intensification of personality.” Meanwhile, Buddha taught that the goal of life should be to have no goal at all; that is, you don’t necessarily need to pursue anything, you should just “be.” And if you’re Freud — who believed the world was imperfect and attaining happiness was impossible despite it being something “all humans strive for” — the highest goal you should reach for is none other than, drumroll please, sexual pleasure (for men, at least … bastard.)

If none of those happiness alternatives work for you, there’s always Wilson’s trusty companion: melancholy. “Melancholy means acknowledging that life is mostly suffering and that perpetual happiness is rare, if not impossible,” he explains. “Accepting that helps us see that there’s no one way life ‘ought’ to be, and that we’re all just doing the best we can.” In other words, when we realize we can exist as imperfect beings whose daily lives don’t always reflect the prefabricated glitz of Instagram filters or the antiseptic cheerfulness and quick fixes marketed to us, it’s much easier to embrace the same flaws that give us so much grief.

Making peace with his own flaws is exactly what Wilson would consider his version of “happiness” to be now. “When I can see the flaws of myself clearly, but not judgmentally, I can progress toward improving them,” he says. “That makes me happy. Just being able to exist in the world without trying to make it something it’s not gives me the feeling I’m on the edge of what it means to be alive.” Plus, without darkness, there is no light: You need melancholy to measure happiness by; otherwise, you take it for granted. “Joy and melancholy go hand-in-hand,” Wilson says. “You can’t know what one is without the other.”

To be crystal clear, Wilson isn’t arguing that you should intentionally make yourself miserable or avoid addressing real problems like depression, which he tells me should absolutely be treated and processed at all costs. Rather, he’s simply suggesting that people who are struggling with mental health issues like depression and anxiety try to approach the world from where they’re actually at, even when that place is a couple rungs lower than they’d like. Doing so can really pay off, too. “When we’re melancholy, we’re discontented with how things are, caught in a gap between expectation and reality,” he explains. “If we’re patient with this longing for something else and don’t judge it for deviating from how we’re ‘supposed’ to feel, we often imagine new ways to be. We develop new habits and new expressions. In this way, melancholy generates contemplation and creativity.” You don’t need to look much further than the light-year-long list of famous, and famously depressed artists, musicians, writers and actors for evidence of that.

Still, while depression-fueled creativity and a stalwart rejection of America’s happiness complex sounds nice in theory, Simon-Thomas cautions that one person’s — or culture’s — definition of happiness doesn’t always have to be another’s (in fact, many countries like Japan and Iran are averse to the outward displays of happiness Americans value so much and have completely different definitions of what that feeling can mean). “Genuine happiness isn’t about fitting into other people’s theories and ideas about who we are,” she explains. “It takes work. To experience happiness, you have to learn, then prioritize the activities, exercises and experiences that develop certain key aspects of yourself, such as an ability to handle ups and downs. It’s more about your ability to recover from negative states than it is about being cheerful or enthusiastic all the time.”

Likewise, she says, it’s about how you express those aspects of yourself within your relationships and connections with others. “Engaging with others in genuine and cooperative ways is, it turns out, the most valuable thing anyone can do to discover more happiness in life,” she says.

That said, if you’re a person who doesn’t have those connections — or is still learning to make them — it’s okay to take Wilson’s advice and sink into that part of yourself that’s working toward more positive feelings and relationships. Knowing what it feels like to go without them is important, because it gives you something to measure your progress by when your mood does start to improve.

So whether you choose to buy into melancholy, Freud’s batshit notions of sexual pleasure or the brand of happiness America worships with “god-like” devotion (or any number of shades of grey in-between), just make sure it feels most honest to you. Basically, if your baseline state is “golden retriever about to get a snack,” it’s okay to shoot for blind enthusiasm and child-like joy — that’s your homeostasis. If it’s more “Dracula in need of antidepressants,” that’s okay, too — lean into the darkness, because, as Wilson says, it’s the surest way to get to the light.

Isabelle Kohn is a sex and relationships journalist, educator and consultant who, for some reason, keeps writing about livestock instead. She writes features and long-form pieces for MEL, usually without the help of Clippy.

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This post originally appeared on MEL Magazine and was published April 16, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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