Why happiness is the wrong goal

I’d dearly love a dollar for every person who’s sat in my office, described being depressed, and when asked to elaborate said, “I’m just not happy.”

They’re usually shocked to hear me say that happiness is a misguided pursuit, in and of itself.

Happiness is a choice; one that most often follows a long line of good decisions.

And if you’re anything like me, you struggle to make choices about dinner, much less important stuff.

There’s a lot of work that goes into making our lives manageable (which typically precedes being happy). For a lot of years, I felt like there must be a set of instructions on how to live that I never received.

Most of the instructions I’ve discovered came through trial and error and a lot of good books.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote that one of the many problems with today’s world is that, “everyone wants to build and no one wants to do the maintenance work.” The foundational parts of a good life are neither sexy nor fun. They’re not the reasons people get out of bed. They’re simply necessary to create the potential for more than fleeting happiness.

What are the basics? Nutrition. Exercise. 8 glasses of water a day. Good sleep. All the stuff we know we need most are the first things to get overlooked. Most of us want short cuts and immediate gratification.

But if you’re like me, you just figure you’ve already paid a lot of dues and endured too much already. The truth is: You have. I’m sorry. But it doesn’t work that way. Nobody shows up to make it fair. That’s an inside job that you need a lot of outside help in making.

We who survived great injustices tend to treat ourselves unfairly. Most of us are stuck, wandering around saying dumb shit like, “I’m just trying to figure it out.” (Hint: “It” = me). What we’re really seeking is the longing of our hearts: to be loved and accepted just as we are.

If you’re like me, you’re stuck in some self-pity that you don’t even know you have. Like when you say, “I just wish…” or “I just want…”

Truth: In the pursuit of a quality life, needs come before wants. Maintenance isn’t optional, and the inevitable discovery that most of us arrive at comes in the form of an annoying metaphor like that you can’t build a great house on a faulty foundation cuz the damned thing will keep falling down.

You gotta rebuild the foundation, which means you separate it from the house and examine it (you) honestly. Explore the cracks and broken pieces with kindred spirits. Find what’s missing and let them help you fill in what’s missing.

Here’s a start:

When people ask me how to be happy I ask them to write me a list of everything that makes them unhappy. Later, I’ll ask them to identify how many of the things on the list are outside of their control and how many they can change. Folks quickly make the connection that there’s a lot of work and discomfort to endure in changing their lives. What they struggle with is:

What do I do with everything that’s outside of my control that makes me unhappy?

(Warning: Bitter pill ahead). You accept it.

If you’re a misfit like me, then the things you find completely unacceptable are the very things that you need to come to terms with. This starts with some lessons in powerlessness.

The first lesson is what powerlessness is not: It’s not hopelessness or helplessness. It’s simply the inability to control an outcome or evoke a change.

If you’re F’ed up like me, there’s a good chance you’ve made a lot of bad investments: You’ve put a ton of time and energy into things you can do absolutely nothing about. You’ve waited for sick and selfish people to love you. You’re stuck in believing that how others have treated you is a reflection of your worth instead of a reflection of their character.

Let’s change that. Here’s a start:

“I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” – Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happiness

Jim LaPierre

About Jim LaPierre

Jim LaPierre LCSW CCS is the Executive Director of Higher Ground Services in Brewer, Maine. He is a Recovery Ally, mental health therapist and addictions counselor. He specializes in facilitating recovery (whether from addiction, trauma, depression, anxiety, or past abuse) overcome obstacles, and improve their quality of life. Jim offers a limited amount of online therapy to those with very flexible schedules.