In The Pursuit Of Happiness You Can’t Excape The Pain

Smiling woman in the dark holding a lighted umbrella

The pursuit of Happiness: As Americans, we all have the right to pursue happiness. It even says so in the Declaration of Independence. However, what the founding fathers were talking about then is quite different from what the average American today considers happiness to be.

What Is Happiness?

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines happiness as “a state of being happy” or “an experience that makes you happy.” That seemed too simplistic, so I looked up the word in other dictionaries, and they all said the same thing. I kept digging until I could find something a little meatier. And then, I came upon a definition on Wikipedia that summed it up well for me. It said that happiness is a mental or emotional state of well-being defined by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy. 

Sometimes, Happiness Is Found In The Little Things

That definition reminded me of an incident involving my dad many years ago. My family was vacationing at a cottage on a lake with other family members. It was a beautiful morning with the sun shining down on the lake, making it look like glass. My dad eased himself down in a chair and leaned back with a cup of coffee in one hand and a donut in the other. With a massive grin, he leaned back, let out a happy sigh, and stated, “Life is good!”

At that exact moment, all the circumstances had come together for him, and he was experiencing a state of being happy. That didn’t mean that everything in his life was perfect or he had no problems. It just meant that the simple experience he was enjoying at that moment translated into a period of happiness.

You notice that I said a (period) of happiness. Obviously, that donut and coffee would only last for a short time. My dad also knew he had to go home at the end of the week. And anyone who has gone on vacation knows when it’s over, and you walk back into your home, “life” has been waiting for you to pick it back up where you left it the week before. And, as we all know, life is a mixed bag of ups and downs. It is unrealistic to think that we can stay in a state of happiness all the time, even though we might think we should be able to.

True Happiness Isn’t About Being Happy All The Time

Let’s take my dad’s experience, for example. Most of us can envision staying lakeside surrounded by loved family members, feeling happy as a clam (and let’s not forget the coffee and donuts). But what if he had to repeat that experience every morning? How long do you think it would take before the novelty of the experience starts to wear off, and he starts complaining, “Is this all we have to eat, a donut?” 

Think of the adventures in your life that made you over-the-top happy. Maybe it was a new car, you got a raise, or you moved into a new house. Can you see where I am going with this? Eventually, that new car will get older and break down; your raise won’t quite meet your needs that you thought it would, and that new house? Well, you quickly found out your next-door neighbors had three dogs that barked all day, and their teenagers loved to play hard rock music loud enough to rattle your windows.

So, let’s go back to one of the definitions of happiness, which states, “Happiness is an experience that makes you happy.” Even though we might think we would like to be happy all the time, it is illogical to think we could. Pleasure alone cannot make us happy. Although endless fun seems idyllic, the reality is often very different. 

Everyone wants happiness, and nobody wants pain, but you can’t have a rainbow without a bit of rain. – Anonymous 

Experiencing something painful provides a contrast for pleasure. Nobody asks for pain or goes looking for it. Still, studies have shown that experiencing relief from pain can increase our feelings of happiness and also reduce our feelings of sadness. Pain may not be a pleasurable experience in itself. Still, it builds our pleasure in ways that pleasure alone cannot achieve.

How Pain Can Bring Happiness

Let me give you a personal example. Years ago, when my husband proposed to me and gave me a diamond engagement ring, I was ecstatic. I showed it to everyone and constantly looked at it in different lights to marvel at the different colors that would shine out of it. But over the years, I stopped doing that. Eventually, it just became a normal part of life — not even feeling it on my finger. Then, one day, I noticed the diamond was missing. Needless to say, I was devastated. We looked everywhere for it, even tracing our steps in a mall we had been to. Even though we could have bought another diamond to replace it, for sentimental reasons, I wanted THAT diamond. I was heartbroken that we couldn’t find it.

I don’t remember now how long I went without the diamond. Still, I DO remember the night sitting on the couch with my husband talking when suddenly he exclaimed, “Look,” and reached down and picked up something (from the shag carpet, I know, that dates me) and held it out to me. It’s hard to believe, but I was staring at my missing diamond!

As you can imagine, I was over the top happy. And in some ways, I was even more pleased than when he gave it to me the first time. All because I felt pain when I thought it was gone forever. In this instance, the pain enhanced the pleasure and happiness I felt.

Embrace The Good, The Bad, And Everything In Between

Yes, happiness ranks high on the list of desires of all human beings. But even if we could have everything we ever wanted, we would still be subject to life’s highs and lows. What is important is how we respond to the circumstances of our lives. That has more influence on our happiness than the events themselves. If we don’t learn to enjoy the little things in life, our well-being will parallel our life’s circumstances. Every time something goes wrong, we will feel miserable (as opposed to disappointed but determined to make the best of things).

We all need to work on a skill for consistent, long-term happiness: to think about the things that fill us with the most joy, focus on those things, and let them brighten our day. That way, no matter what changes, we all will have a variety of simple pleasures to draw from to get us through the bad times.

If you are struggling with the ups and downs of life and would like someone to help you put things into perspective, you will find working with a coach very beneficial. We can talk about pain and happiness and how they work together so you can live life from a more happy and balanced mindset.

Hi, I’m Kris Henderson, LPC. I want you to know I am here to help. Please contact me or schedule your phone call today. I look forward to your call!

This article originally appeared on Counseling Solutions of West Michigan.