Everyone wants happiness, right? The pursuit of happiness is an often-heard idea about actively chasing happiness, while also avoiding unhappiness. While the idea of being happy is a good one, the way we go about chasing happiness and “attaining” it, can be entirely harmful to our daily lives. This harmful side to the pursuit of happiness is what I like to call the paralyzing happiness trap.

What’s Wrong with Happiness

Happiness is elusive. No matter how much a person chases happiness – whether by money or time or effort – happiness if often fleeting. Talking about “how to be happy” can even make people feel as if they are currently unhappy, as if their current circumstances are not happy enough to warrant that “achieved” status. This way of interacting with happiness can potentially lead to two types of happiness traps: the present-future chasm and the definition of happiness itself.

Trap #1: Present-Future Chasm

The idea of happiness is often vague and hard to hold onto. So, problems arise constantly between the here and now and that achievable future happiness. This chasm between future and current happiness states is where the problem lies. The feeling of “never being there yet” makes ultimate happiness always seem just out of reach.

This chasm can lead to feelings of unease and paralysis. Does ultimate happiness exist? Can I get there? Can I achieve it? What if I never achieve “real” happiness? This daily thought spiral makes happiness highly valued and relentlessly pursued, as it forever appears right on the horizon of possibility. But this way of dealing with the gap is exhausting. Living for the future can also devalue the impact of present happiness.

Trap #2: What Happiness Means

Another way that happiness has the power to paralyze is through the definitions society, our families and ourselves set for happiness. What others tell you may not align with your own personal goals. Shifting what happiness means to us is particularly hard when society or family members do not understand or support our choices. Yet, for personal happiness, sometimes straying from norms is necessary.

The more problematic happiness definition is the one we set for ourselves regarding timelines. We all have rough timelines of life events we would like to take place a certain time. This may include graduating from school, getting engaged, getting married, having children, getting a promotion, buying a house, etc. When life gets in the way, these timelines and expectations may need to be reset.

How to Get Out of the Happiness Trap

For example, when I was suffering chronic pain from TMS, I realized I needed to redefine what perfectionism and work meant for me. I needed to retrain my brain. What I had expected – to work long hours to achieve the most perfect result – was not going to work anymore. This realization caused me a lot of unhappiness at first. How was I going to be happy with my work and myself if I couldn’t be a perfectionist?

Over time, I realized that I needed to completely shift what I wanted happiness to look like for my life. A complete reframing of my happiness definition was necessary. Maybe, you too, need to reprogram your mind to be emotionally pain-free.

To get out of the happiness trap, you need to take a good, long look at how you can be happy now, with your current self – not your future self, not your old self, not your “better” self. Define what would bring you happiness and then try to experience happiness in the current moment. Reprogram your mind against living in the future and don’t get down on yourself for how your life has turned out differently than you’d planned. Train your brain to accept happiness now as your current self.

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