Only one in three Americans say they are happy, according to a 2013 Harris Poll. Despite popular culture’s obsession with the pursuit of happiness, there is no set definition. Some may say happiness is about achieving goals, while others say its financial stability or familial harmony. The answer is so ambiguous because there is no one set definition. Happiness, according to traditional societal standards, is overrated and oversimplified.
“Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace and gratitude,” writer and motivational speaker Denis Waitley said. No offense to Denis Waitley, but this philosophy is deeply flawed. No person can live every moment in happiness nor should they. Society constantly forces the appearance of happiness upon us, telling us happiness is a constant state of calm and collected as we glide through life’s experiences with a positive attitude and an effortless smile.
Society’s placement of happiness on such an unreachable pedestal only puts more pressure on people to live up to this unattainable goal. More often than not, these unrealistic expectations lead to a false sense of failure and a decrease in self-worth over not being able to achieve so-called “happiness.”
The “fake it until you make it” mentality is far too popular and is more psychologically damaging than helpful. Forced happiness is not the answer to life’s problems and strifes. When bad things happen, the solution is not to force happiness on yourself or others but to accept honest emotions as they come. Faking happy and smiling through the pain are coping methods that are suppressive, unrealistic and all-around damaging to one’s mental health.
In the same way someone who has never experienced major strife is not guaranteed happiness, someone who experiences tragedy is not doomed to a life of sadness. The popular idea that happiness is only possible when a person’s life is free from tragedy or sadness is simply untrue.
“It’s often negative experiences that help us grow and learn, which is vital for being happy” said Sonja Lyubomirsky, an author and psychology professor at University of California.
Each person is unique in what makes them happy or unhappy. There is no blanket cause for happiness and there is no band-aid cure for unhappiness. People can be unhappy financially or romantically or within their career or home life. There are also millions of people suffering from mental illnesses like depression or anxiety which can lead to unhappiness. To oversimplify the causes of unhappiness is to willingly misunderstand the complexity of life and mental wellness.
Expecting every decision a person makes to lead to instant satisfaction is counterproductive to achieving genuine happiness. Happiness can often mean doing something that may not bring happiness in the moment but will have a positive effect in the long-term. Ending toxic relationships, going out of the way to help someone and letting go of grudges can all be painful in the moment but greatly beneficial in the end.
Society puts tremendous pressure on people to be happy and leads many to lose sight of the things that bring lasting contentment. It is more popular to substitute the appearance of happiness for actual happiness. True happiness is not as glamorous as clichéd sayings or television ads like to portray. Happiness often means realizing where we are in life, acknowledging it for what it is and accepting the parts we are unable to change.
Hannah Kleinpeter is a 20-year-old mass communication junior from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.