Isn’t happiness a purely pleasurable experience? How could happiness involve any sort of problems?

Happiness is so ardently desired because it feels so good. It’s essential to our well being. But, because there are many common misunderstandings that create problems for its realization, it is sometimes not easy to attain.

We seek happiness from Day-1. Our lives began with zero input from us. No one asked if we wanted to be born, but born we were. And quickly we hunger for happiness in the form of comfort, nourishment, and love from others. Slowly we take increasing responsibility for our own well being and happiness.

Until we were able to communicate and think for ourselves, we relied on others and our own innate “GPS” to seek pleasure and avoid pain. We also came equipped with an enormous memory and a huge capacity to learn what brings pleasure or pain in our particular environment. Through much trial and error, we gradually begin managing our own life and direct it toward that special feeling called happiness.

A strong case can be made that happiness is our “North Star”; the ultimate goal of all our efforts. We study, for example, to develop skills which will open up good jobs which will provide security, fulfillment, and happiness. You are probably reading this article to learn some useful way to better understand and increase your happiness. I suggest that if you trace any of your efforts to their maximum expected outcome, you’re likely to ultimately find a desire for happiness.

Unhappy With The Idea of Happiness

But some people deny happiness as our peak experience. They claim it’s overrated and that salvation, or reputation, or honor, are more valuable. But we can always ask, “Sure! They have …. But ARE they happy?” No one would ask the reverse: “Sure! They’re happy, but do they have .…?” because when we’re happy we have it all.

Some can be conflicted about being happy. Not everyone is happy about being happy, regardless of how essential it is.

Consider the snotty Yale professor who proclaimed “I don’t want to be happy. I want to be GOOD!” implying that he’s not like the rest of us rabble who eagerly seek happiness. But, I’ll betcha being “good” would make him happy, even though he denies that goal.

Others regard happiness as a silly, adolescent pursuit. Some think it’s a selfish goal when so many are suffering. But, you can safely predict that what they regard as “more worthy than happiness ” will make them .…yes, happy!

Clearly Happy

For those of us unconflicted about our desire for happiness, clarity about what we’re seeking and how to find it may be the problem.

Happiness is not only a goal, but also a life map; a guide to tell us what to focus on, what to pursue, and what to avoid to have a happy life. But guides can be misleading. We may mistakenly consider only a certain level of feeling good to be genuine happiness.

It’s important to realize that a high level of elation, like falling in love, is correctly regarded as a type of happiness. Who doesn’t like that feeling? But, it takes too much energy to sustain and can distract us from other, mundane necessities. Do you remember falling in love and being so besotted that you forgot about a test? Or neglecting paying your bills …. until the phone was disconnected?

The ultimate happiness that we are exploring here is less intense than love, but still very important. We need to feel both joy about important life moments and also to be happy about our overall life quality. That’s the foundation of good mental health, physical well being, and life meaning. Happiness is a natural feedback system, telling us that we are living well; it says, “Keep up the good work .… and these good feelings that work brings.” Even when our life is far from perfect, and not ecstatic, we can feel content with who we are and how we live. Happiness does not require a perfect life, but one good enough to produce a sense of overall satisfaction, contentment, peace.

“Boooooooooooring!” the teenager might snark. How little does she know about what she needs.

The How of Happy

So far it may seem that we merely need to choose pleasure and avoid pain to attain that wondrous state of happiness. BUT, our quest for happiness often becomes complex and confusing.

Many choices we make can bring immediate pleasure, and eventually devolve into pain and unhappiness; overeating luscious chocolate brings instant joy, but a whole box can guarantee stomach pain and unhappiness. Exercise involves immediate pain, but promotes long-term health, which is a contributor to our happiness. To successfully navigate the choices we encounter we must learn to consider not only the short-term rewards but also the long term consequences.

For example, remember the test you blew off for time with your beloved? What if the professor teaching that course suddenly became gravely ill and could no longer teach. It’s near the end of the semester, so the department decides the class’s final grades will be based on their performance so far. And you, by not showing up for that test, were left with an “F” in the calculation of your final grade. Ouch!

Making the right choices isn’t easy. All choices are made under circumstances that are unpredictable, constantly changing, and mostly out of our control. Our plans often rely on assuming the stability of unreliable conditions, and to attain and maintain a happy state we must be able to adapt to unchanging change.

But why do we face so many disasters, mishaps, and tragedies in the first place? Why does life contain so many problems or disappointments? We didn’t ask to be born! Why can’t the life we’ve been forced into at least be smooth and problem free? That not a lot to ask, is it?

“This ain’t fair! This sucks!”

Ahem …. we must remember that the universe was not made for us. WE were made to adapt to the unchanging change of reality as effectively as possible. As the Buddha said, “Life is suffering, but we CAN be happy.” That’s the good news; the better our “life map” is, the better our chances for well being, survival, and happiness. The bad news? The worse our map is….

Common “Happiness Map” Navigation Errors

Our destination, happiness, is more than possible. Just look around. But sometimes we get lost because of map errors. We can improve our chance of arriving at our goal by improving our “life map” and correcting these common map errors.

    1. Vague Destination.
      Picking on average teenagers again, when asked what they want from their life, they’re sure to say, “I just wanna be happy.” The happiness they seek is, however, often the constant high of ecstasy. They have a limited idea of what happiness involves and usually almost no idea of what would make them happy.If we tell Expedia, “Send me to some real cool place. I’ll be adventurous” it may turn out Expedia thinks the Iceland is REAL COOL — but not in the way we meant. Having a vague idea of what happiness is and what gets us there, may end in disappointment.Happiness, the long-term, peaceful type, is the payoff for the overall quality of our life. Happiness is the positive emotions, short and long term, both the intense and the more peaceful, that reward us for living well in the moment and overall; a reward given us for living a good life. We need both types. And a strong sense of what will give US, the unique individuals that we are, some of both.

      To better appreciate the long-term, peaceful type, imagine prolonged peace and contentment routinely in the background of your daily experience. Setbacks are disappointing, but less upsetting when our overall life is good. Overall happiness is a “shock absorber” for life’s unavoidable bumps.

    1. A Refusal to Accept Happiness’ Limits.
      As said, happiness does not require a perfect life, so don’t bother wasting time and energy trying to achieve what’s impossible to attain; you’ll just make yourself unhappy.Instead, recognize that happiness itself is not perfect. We can be truly happy and still feel sadness, disappointment, loss, pain, and suffering. They’re all inevitable, given the nature of humanity and the universe. In spite of the presence of these negative realities, our overall life can feel good enough, well-lived, satisfying. It’s an existence that we want to protect, sustain, enjoy rather than flee.
    2. Being Unprepared For The Destination’s Unavoidable Adjustments.
      For those of us who relocated to Costa Rica for happiness, we quickly learned that hapiness is more the result of HOW we live than where. For once we arrived at our destination, as happy as it made us, the struggle to maintain our happiness began all over again.Yes, it feels great to be in CR. “We did it!” Against big odds and a lot of skepticism about our dream, we pulled it off, and that’s a wonderful feeling. But, “NOW WHAT?” Our external conditions may be as delightful as we had hoped, yet there will be surprises and adjustments to be made. And when those things rear their ugly heads, do we move again, seeking that ever elusive goal-perfection? Or, do we ACCEPT there’s nowhere that completely free of problems and make the best of our situation?Happily, happiness depends more on our “inner world” than on our outer circumstances. Happily, because we usually have much more control over our perceptions, feelings, and mind set than over our outer reality. We can make an “attitude adjustment” that rescues and restores our tropical dream. How many expats have you found to be unhappy with their relocation because they expected CR to adjust to them?

  1. Imagining That We’ve Left Our Problems Behind, Back In…
    Many of us decided on CR as our “dream destination” after a dream vacation. We may have failed to see that the small “snapshot” of life in CR we had gotten from a vacation here left a LOT out of the picture .… a lot that we didn’t expect or prepare for. Like bringing some of our problems with us.What happened? Were we the victims of false advertising? Bait and Switch? Or was it our own misreading of what adjustments such a change would take?We didn’t have those problems on vacation, we protest!

    Consider a fundamental fact of life: To live is to need. To need is to be denied. To be denied is to be frustrated, upset, unhappy. And to be unhappy is to need….

    So life catches us in a terrible bind; we are not self-sufficient or self-reliant, and we are continuously needing something and continuously being refused. Depending on how we cope with those denials, our happiness may be severely diminished or lost entirely.

    How do we break this need-unhappiness cycle? Living in a completely new world will arouse needs we never knew we had. Needs that may be hard, if not impossible, to meet, like daily contact with children and grandchildren. When they were easily available we may have never realized how important they are to us. Do we give up on the dream and return to our “old country”? Do we deny our need? Or do we learn to change what we can; our inner world? While on vacation, our tour guide, our hotelier made us happy. Now it’s our job. How do we proceed now? What “attitude adjustment” is required during this stage of our quest?

  2. Expecting Happiness To Be a “One and Done” Life Event.
    Happiness is not a once and for all goal, like a college degree or an appendectomy. It’s an ongoing effort. Something we have to work to attain and maintain. The good news? We become more skilled at happiness the more we practice being happy.

IN SUMMARY: While we have no control over our birth, we have considerable input into our happiness. We need both short and long-term happiness. Intense but brief and prolonged but peaceful. We reach this Mount Everest of life goals by living a meaningful, effective life. And, by being prepared to restore happiness when it subsides.

NEXT TIME: We just did a “map study.” After reading this, hopefully you’ve gotten a better picture of the lay of the land and what’s ahead. Next time we’ll “ruck up”…. pack our rucksack with some of the life’s pretty-sure things on our way to Happiness.

If you’re happy OR unhappy with these ideas, let me know: Here

Written by Tony Johnson is a retired university mental health center psychologist. He has lived, learned and enlarged his happiness in the Costa Ballena for over three years. He has the curiosity of a coati about all things life! These articles are his best shot at answering those “Life Questions”. Hopefully, you will find them informative and useful.


The Problems Of Happiness.


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