Updated: May 2, 2022
Are you happy? Do you have enough of what you want in your life? What do you think of your relationships, your job, your financial situation, your possessions, your hobbies, and your experiences? Are you content with where you are, or are you always looking ahead and wondering when the best stuff begins?
Personally, I’ve had some excellent experiences in the past twenty years, but I’ve also spent an awful lot of time wondering when the good part of life will start. It didn’t help that I was sick for a lot of that time and that I was in a job that sucked the life out of me which made it hard for me to do the things I love best in life (garden and travel). Despite all this, it seems like I shouldn’t have had to work so hard to be happy.
Unless you are someone completely content with your life (I have met a few of these rare beings), I’m sure you can come up with some good reasons for your dissatisfaction as well. I’m not here to point fingers. I’m just curious to see if we can figure out WHY so many of us are prone to discontent.
You’ve probably heard of the World Happiness Report. Over the past ten years, the report’s researchers have worked to measure happiness around the world. Early on, they were surprised to find that the most affluent countries were not necessarily the happiest. The United States has consistently ranked below the top ten happiest countries along with some other highly affluent countries. What the World Happiness Report has highlighted is that happiness is much more than just a good GDP. We all know that money can’t buy happiness, but do we know what can?
This week I listened to the book Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar. In it, he recounts his search for what makes people happy. He calls happiness the “ultimate currency” and shares ways to gather more of it. Not surprisingly, he spends most of his time talking about satisfaction at work, relationships, doing things we love, and other non-financial sources of happiness. His basic theory is that you CAN increase your happiness. The key is to know what really brings you joy and make sure your life is full of those things. Finances can be a part of this (it’s challenging to create happiness when you are stressed about where our next meal is coming from) but are certainly not the sole indicator of happiness.
Within 24 hours of finishing Happier I also listened to the episode “The Vanishing Horizon of ‘Enough’” on Rowan Mangan’s and Martha Beck’s podcast Bewildered. They spend the episode wondering why humans, even the most successful and talented of us, have such a hard time finding that place in life where we have enough. Enjoy money, enough success, enough fame, enough basic satisfaction in life. It seems that as soon as we reach one goal post, we look up and see another we need to chase. Are we simply wired to be discontent?
These are not new themes and concepts. They have been raked over many times in the past several thousand years. Just the fact that humans keep having to go back over them indicates that finding the source of happiness and lasting satisfaction is not necessarily simple. I’m not going to pretend to know the answers, but I do have two suggestions to make.
First, perhaps your happiness is purely individual and based solely on your identity. Second, your current identity can never fully encompass your true self, and therefore is constantly shifting and adjusting to experience all that you can be. That moment of “enough” never fully arrives because there is always more of your true self to experience.
Let’s unpack this idea that what brings us happiness is purely individual. In the language of Tal Ben-Shahar, your ultimate currency may be different from my ultimate currency. Yes, there may be themes among us (we all want fulfilling relationships), but there are just as many differences. Gardening and spending time outdoors are big parts of my identity and investing in those activities brings me much happiness. You may not be the same. Your personal happiness will be related to other pursuits.
I think some of the most unhappy people are those that have no idea what they really enjoy. Perhaps they have spent so much time conforming to what others want to do that they have never stopped to figure out what THEY want to do. They don’t know themselves well enough to say what makes them happy. Their pursuit of happiness comes from looking outside of themselves rather than looking inside at their own interests and desires. For these people, getting to know themselves is the first step toward happiness. The next step is taking time to explore the things that spark joy, whether or not people around them agree.
If you find that you have a hard time feeling happy, take some time to consider what you spend your time on. Are you doing the things YOU want to do? Are you spending time with the people you like best? Are you doing things for yourself, not just doing things for others? How well do you know yourself and what you value most in life?
Finding your own happiness involves exploring your identity and investing time and energy in those things that are personally meaningful to you. Part of life is exploring new things and figuring out what thrills you. You may even enjoy testing new foods or visiting new places. You can spend your whole life searching for the things and experiences that bring you personal joy.
Why, then, do so many of us still struggle with finding that moment when life is enough? When we have figured out the ultimate list of what thrills us? When we have achieved our big goals and feel content with what we have become? When we have all the pieces of identity in place and we know exactly who we are? I think the answer to this is simply that knowing the totality of our true self will never happen. We are dissatisfied because we are chasing an impossible dream.
Let me explain further. In my blog post “Your Identity vs. Your True Self,” I write about how your identity and your “true self” are not necessarily the same thing. You have borrowed pieces of your identity from friends, family, religions, and culture. You have been taught that you must conform to certain expectations to be accepted and most of the time you agree to play those roles. However, those identities are not the complete representation of your most authentic self. You may agree to a role for a while, but if that identity does not fit with who you really are, at some point you will run into a wall of unhappiness. When you are living an identity that is not authentic to who you are supposed to be in this world, your true self will not let you be content.
Sometimes getting over that wall of unhappiness is easy (you go out and discover a fun new activity) and sometimes it is hard (you quit your job to strike out in a totally new direction). No matter the challenge, though, you are driven to explore your true self in new ways. You may get a makeover, clean out your home, move to a new location, or meet new friends. In this world, change is the norm. Being static is definitely not.
That’s because you are always exploring new nuances of your true self. As you try to figure out who you are at your core, every day is simply living in an identity that is your current best approximation of that true self. You constantly change and shift in an effort to express who your authentic self wants to be in the world. So the moment you feel like you have finally understood yourself, you also realize there is so much more to learn.
Is this a bit depressing? It shouldn’t be, and here is why: Your authentic self is complicated, nuanced, and vast. You will never get to know all the pieces of it. This is the joy of being a multifaceted human being. You will always have more to explore. You will always have something you can change. Life will never be boring.
So rather than be disappointed that there is never “enough,” you can be excited that there is always “more” to experience. Does that mean that the things you have achieved were wrong? That they were a waste of time? NO! They were things you needed to experience and explore. They were authentically part of you, but not the fullness of you. They were identities you tried on the way to something different. You will never stop exploring your core identity. You will never hit that moment when you say, “oh, this is everything I am supposed to be.” I think this is why, on some level, you may never feel like you have found “enough.”
Integrated Energy Therapy® (IET®) talks about finding your “life purpose,” as if that purpose is a single (or small list) of things you are supposed to accomplish during this lifetime. I finally realized that “life purpose” is not just about particular experiences and things you are supposed to do, but it is also about the path you take between and beyond them. It’s about the journey as much as the high points. It is about changing as much as it is about creating change in the world.
So how do you find happiness if you cannot find “enough?” I think the first step is adjusting your expectations. Happiness is individual. It is based on pursuing the things that bring you joy. Those things are constantly changing as your identity changes in your attempt to discover facets of your true self.
Happiness is a direction, not a place.
Sydney J. Harris
I think the key is holding these conflicting truths together in your mind: You create happiness by investing in the people, things, and experience that brings you true joy now, while also knowing that these will change in the future. You can chase goals and dreams while also knowing that once you have reached them, there will be something equally exciting to pursue after that. You can find contentment with who you are now, while also knowing that you won’t stay in this particular identity forever.
Life and healing are about the journey as much as the destination. Don’t let your excitement for the future keep you from ignoring the joy that can be experienced now. Also, don’t expect that the achievement of goals will bring you lasting fulfillment. Stay excited for what is coming next. You can appreciate what you have now while still working for better. You can be content with what you have and still want more. If you have the expectation of both in your mind, you will be less likely to be disappointed. You will be more likely to appreciate what you have while also waiting for the next awesome thing.