Is Happiness About Feeling Good All the Time?

The job of advertisers is to make us want and crave more.

Posted Jan 10, 2019

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What is happiness? Perhaps it’s a question we don’t ask ourselves because the concept seems so basic. But if we don’t clearly define what happiness means for us, we will succumb to others’ definition of it. For example, companies spend billions and billions of dollars every year defining happiness for consumers. 

The job of advertisers is to make us want and crave more. And the most common tactic they use is to persuade us that buying their product or service will make us happier. Happiness, according to them, is based on a variation on the pleasure principle, which states that we seek to feel less pain and more pleasure. That is to say, we want to have lots of good experiences (if not great ones!) that put smiles on our faces. Meanwhile, we avoid those experiences that make us sad or angry. 

Although a definition of happiness rooted in the pleasure principle is accepted as common knowledge, it is one worth challenging. In this blog post, this is precisely what I’ll do.  

The problem with the pleasure principle is that it isn’t based in reality. Sometimes we experience events that bring us immense joy. Meanwhile other events bring us sadness. If we think we can control the amount of good or bad experiences in our lives, herein lies the problem. Such a mindset will most likely result in trying to push away the bad in order to have more pleasurable experiences. In other words, adhering to the pleasure principle will eventually cause us to suffer more, not less. 

Rather than label pleasant experiences as good and unpleasant ones as bad, consider another approach. In and of themselves, pleasure and pain are neither good nor bad. In certain instances, in fact, pain is the healthiest emotion for you. For example, one of my closest companions was Einstein, my dog. He and I were the best of friends for 16 years. 

We were nearly inseparable, and I was privileged to be beside him until he took his last breath. I remember after his passing, a profound sadness welled up from within. I cried harder than I’ve probably ever in my entire life. The pain was intense, and about as far from pleasure as I could imagine, and yet it was the best emotion for me to express. 

I hadn’t expected the sadness to come up so strongly. But when it did, I didn’t stop it. I let it freely flow for as long as I needed. If, in the moment when the sadness welled up, I had said to myself, “this feeling is bad, so I need it to go away,” I would have denied myself the important step of grieving one of the greatest losses I’ve ever experienced. 

In a 2017 article titled, “The Secret of Happiness, Feeling Good or Feeling Right,” published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology General, 2,324 university students in eight countries were studied. The researchers found that people may be happier when they feel the emotions they desire, regardless of whether those desired emotions were pleasant or unpleasant. In other words, feeling our feelings is important, more so than whether they are positive or negative. 

If we told ourselves that anger and sadness were bad emotions and therefore we shouldn’t feel them, we would be denying ourselves a natural and healthy response. In fact, in the long term, suppressing our emotions works against engendering happiness and peace of mind.

So if we embrace sadness and anger as emotions worthy of expression, how do we express them well? Depending on the difficulty you face, your response will vary. Whether it’s anger or sadness or something else, healthy expressions of negative emotions have two components: First, they don’t harm us or others. Second, they make us feel better, not worse about ourselves. 

In my case, when Einstein died, crying didn’t harm myself or anyone else and it made me feel better afterwards. Let’s imagine another scenario. For example, racist acts are all over the news. So what do we do when we are the victim of abuse or witness racism and become enraged about it? 

The question to ask yourself is, “What am I going to do with this feeling?” Bottling it up, seeking revenge, or holding onto grudges are formulas for unhappiness. But you also want to give voice to your emotions in a way that doesn’t harm yourself or others and will make you feel better and not worse about yourself. 

We should never tolerate abuse, which is why setting boundaries is important. Mahatma Gandhi and Rosa Parks demonstrate how one can express emotions while refusing to be a doormat. Both individuals refused to allow the injustice they experienced in their outside world, to take away from their sense of well being and happiness. They listened to and acted on the outrage they felt. They lived in accordance with their values. And they did so in a skillful way that improved the world. 

If either of them defined happiness as seeking less pain and more pleasure, would they have ever challenged the injustice that plagued their respective countries? By addressing their outrage in a way that wasn’t intended to harm themselves or others, they led beautiful lives. While most of us will never change the course of society like they did, their example points to the possibility that exists within all of us to reject notions of happiness based on the pleasure principle. 

True happiness requires being in touch with our emotions and embracing rather than rejecting what is before us. This doesn’t mean we reject change. In fact, by accepting what life presents us, rather succumbing to labels of good or bad, we gain clarity. And this clarity allows us to reject making decisions based on wanting more of something and less of another. Instead, we realize that happiness is possible no matter what comes our way.