Why Constantly Striving For Happiness Is Actually Holding You Back, From A Neuroscientist
For as long as I can remember, happiness has been the goal. And who doesn't want to be happier, right? Or have more money, more success, or more joy in their lives, for instance? We want those things because we ultimately think they'll help us lead happy lives.
Well, according to experts, that wanting might actually result in you feeling less happy. Here's why, plus what to do about it.
The irony of striving for happiness
There's nothing wrong with wanting something more for your life and by extension, seeking more happiness. But as neuroscientist Tara Swart, M.D., tells mindbodygreen, that state between "being" and "becoming" can be a very unhappy state because all you're focused on is the fact that you're not yet where you want to be.
Say you were to visualize a Venn diagram, for instance, where one circle is your present self and the other is your ideal self. "If those circles sit completely over each other, then obviously, you're living your best life. If they're overlapping but not much, or they're completely separate from each other, then that gap is a source of unhappiness because it's a focus on what you desire that you haven't achieved yet," Swart explains.
And when you focus on that gap, that discordance between who you are and who you want to be, "you don't acknowledge your small wins or achievements along the way, and you just keep moving on to the next or bigger thing," Swart says, adding, "and that will create a state of lack in your brain."
Bestselling author Morgan Housel, who released Same As Ever: A Guide to What Never Changes this past year, echoed this point on a recent episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, noting, "What really matters for your happiness is not your circumstances; it's the gap between your circumstances and your expectations."
As he explains, if your definition of success increases with every goal you achieve, you're never truly satisfied. The key, then, is to accept the fact that improving your circumstances won't result in lasting happiness. Manage your expectations, however, and you'll likely feel content, Housel says.
What to focus on instead of striving for happiness
As Swart tells mindbodygreen, the brain is (unfortunately for us) wired for a negativity bias that looks to convince us all our deepest fears are true and we'll never be happy.
"It's very easy for your brain to just default to that. Your amygdala, which is where the emotions come from, and your hippocampus, where your memories are stored, work together and bring up the most negative scenarios," Swart explains.
As such, expecting to be ecstatic and overjoyed and full of love all the time isn't really a feasible goal. However, she says, if you can find a balance between the cortisol-inducing and fearful state of scarcity and lack, versus the trust and joy you experience in your best moments, that's lasting happiness. And it relates to your ability to regulate yourself.
"If you think of those two ends that your brain can be in, we're always somewhere in between those two, and it's really about how much you can slide yourself along that scale to a certain extent," Swart notes, adding, "Within reality, there's a level of choice of how you're perceiving the situation that you're in, and that if you can regulate that, that's happiness."
Perspective is everything, and while there will always be external circumstances that influence our lives, Swart points out that two people could live the exact same day but have completely different experiences, depending on how they perceived the day.
So if you've been hung up on the fact that you're not as happy as you'd like to be, don't have what you'd like to have, or haven't achieved what you want to achieve, remember that happiness is an inside job that starts with appreciating where you are now.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.