The Non-Pursuit of Happiness

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This article was written by freelance contributor Richard Lee-Thai 

“How we live our days is how we live our lives.”

How was your day? 

Sometimes my day goes well, sometimes it doesn’t. Even in the course of an hour, I can cycle through feeling happy, sad, angry, calm, fearful, peaceful, doubtful, confident, and so on. Like the weather, my inner landscape encounters storms, sunshine, rain, and stillness. It is always changing. Recognizing that the only constant in life is change, how can one ever truly be happy? We have pleasurable experiences and it’s natural that we try to cling onto it and extend the good feelings for as long as possible. Conversely, painful experiences happen and we try to minimize and avoid them. But try as we might, pleasurable experiences pass and painful experiences inevitably pop into our lives. This too shall pass. Days fade into weeks, weeks into months, months into the years of our lives. What are we trying to pursue? Where are we trying to get to? 

I’ve been reflecting a lot over the past few months on what truly brings happiness within my life. Happiness felt like a fleeting thing that I was always trying to pursue. Through my upbringing and societal messaging, I was instilled with the general sense that happiness is something that can be obtained – that it’s an end state or destination. In other words, once I earn a degree, secure a well-paying job, buy a house, and raise a family, then I’ll live happily ever after. The issue is that we get stuck on a hedonic treadmill. 

Coined by Philip Brickman and Donald Campbell, the concept of a hedonic treadmill refers to how humans quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. Remind yourself of a time that you made a purchase that you thought would bring you happiness – how long did that feeling last for and how do you feel about it right now? Chances are, the initial peak of euphoria quickly subsides and you return back to a baseline level of happiness. And so, we keep buying new gadgets, striving for accolades, looking for a bigger paycheck, indulging in entertainment, and other pleasurable activities, to keep getting hits of happiness. It’s as though we have a hole in our hearts, and we’re continuously searching for the block that will fit and finally make us feel whole. We’re still running on the treadmill. 

What if we stopped chasing happiness? 

For me, this is not a statement of resignation. It’s bringing a greater sense of acceptance for what is happening in any given moment or day. Our lives are extraordinarily ordinary. How much time do we spend each day going through the ordinary tasks of brushing our teeth, washing dishes, taking a shower, browsing social media, eating, drinking water, and spending time at our desks? Especially with COVID-19, many people have been forced into this more minimalist and routine lifestyle, where each day can start to become monotonous. I started to realize that this is life. Life isn’t going to “start” for me once I graduate from university, or once the pandemic is over, or once I start my professional career. Life is happening right now, today. Sure, it’s still on my bucket list to travel to other countries and go on exciting adventures, but the reality is that a lot of my day is filled with seemingly ordinary everyday activities. And that’s okay. It’s common magic, as poet Bronwen Wallace would put it. 

Why are we afraid of the ordinary? In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown, a prominent research on shame, uses the illustrative phrase culture of scarcity:

“Scarcity is the “never enough” problem. The word scarce is from the Old Norman French scars, meaning “restricted in quantity” (c. 1300). Scarcity thrives in a culture where everyone is hyperaware of lack. Everything from safety and love to money and resources feels restricted or lacking. We spend inordinate amounts of time calculating how much we have, want, and don’t have, and how much everyone else has, needs, and wants.”

Fill in the blank: I’m never _______ enough. Never good enough. Never perfect enough. Never thin enough. Never powerful enough. Never successful enough. Never smart enough. Never certain enough. Never safe enough. Never extraordinary enough. This cultural ethos of lack is what instills this sense of needing to always be better or to obtain more in order to be happy. This can radically transform the way we see our own habitual behaviours, as well as those of others. Brené explains that “when I look at narcissism through the vulnerability lens, I see the shame-based fear of being ordinary. I see the fear of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, or to cultivate a sense of purpose.” Furthermore, she explains that “the opposite of ‘never enough’ isn’t abundance or ‘more than you could ever imagine.’ The opposite of scarcity is enough, or what I call Wholeheartedness […] there are many tenets of Wholeheartedness, but at its very core is vulnerability and worthiness: facing uncertainty, exposure, and emotional risks, and knowing that I am enough.” 

I have found a greater sense of happiness by recognizing this culture of scarcity. I have slowly cultivated the intention to believe that I am enough and I have enough, as is. It doesn’t mean that I’m perfect. It doesn’t mean that I’ve given up on pursuing things that I’m passionate about. It doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped experiencing instances of self-doubt, pain, or yearning. It does mean that whatever emotions and experiences come my way, I am grounded by a sense of worthiness and understanding that I am not fundamentally lacking something. 

Embracing the “Negative”

I realized that it’s okay to have challenging emotions and not try to be happy all the time. It’s as natural as the changing seasons, or the ebb and flow of the ocean. Resistance towards pain causes more suffering. Ironically, I have found that leaning into painful emotions has made me happier overall. Why is this? Our human desire to try to suppress thoughts or emotions actually makes it more likely to arise. Called the “white bear problem”, social psychologist Daniel Wegner challenged students not to think of a white bear. They had to verbalize their stream of consciousness for 5 minutes, and ring a bell each time if a white bear came to mind. After 5 minutes, Daniel asked the same participants to intentionally think of white bears for a second 5-minute period. At that point, the participants thought of a white bear even more often than a different group of participants, who had been told from the beginning not to suppress. Consequently, the results suggest that suppressing the thought for the first 5 minutes caused it to “rebound” even more prominently into the participants’ minds later. What does this mean for our day-to-day lives?

Suppression is a form of resistance. In some situations, it serves an adaptive function to help us not feel overwhelmed by a certain emotion or experience, but it also does not allow it to be processed and let go of. As in the experiment, suppression is like bottling it up and when the pressure gets too much, then it explodes out. Pain becomes internalized. Conversely, another form of resistance is rumination. That is, a pattern of thoughts that we keep obsessively repeating in our heads. As Chris Germer, clinical psychologist and meditation practitioner, notes in his book The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: “An example of suffering is spending hours and hours thinking about how we should have sold our stocks before the market collapsed or worrying that we might get sick before a big upcoming event. Some amount of reflection is necessary to anticipate and prevent problems, but we often get stuck regretting the past or worrying about the future.” So what do we do about this?

“One of my favorite sayings by a meditation teacher is he says, “the goal of practice is just to be a compassionate mess.” We’re going to be a mess. No matter what we do, no matter how much we practice, no matter how many meditation retreats we go on or how many therapy sessions we have, we’re still going to be a mess because actually, the human experience is about being a mess. But are we a compassionate mess?” – Kristin Neff

I’m a mess, but I’m a compassionate mess. When I experience pain, I start by recognizing that: “This hurts right now.” Instead of trying to suppress it, ruminate over it, numb myself, or get on the hedonic treadmill, I take a pause and acknowledge that this moment sucks. Just as I would be compassionate towards a friend who is going through something tough, I can offer myself compassion. I am hurting right now. Pain is a part of life. I am not the only one who feels this way. I can be kind to myself. “Negative” emotions implies that negative emotions are to be avoided and that we should try to generate as much positive emotions as possible in our lives. Rather than negative, I prefer to use the word “challenging”. Certainly, there are feelings that are very difficult to deal with, especially around grief, loneliness, shame, betrayal, and regret. There is no light without shadow. They are a part of life, and what a beautiful mess of a life we live in.

“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.”


Robert Brault

Gratitude has allowed me to more deeply appreciate common magic. Gratitude allows me to appreciate what I have, rather than lamenting over the things that I don’t have. The simple act of drinking water can truly be refreshing if I pay attention. Or just to look outside and watch the clouds. Things are constantly changing, with some moments being extraordinarily ordinary, some moments bringing intense joy or pain, and everything in between. This is how my days go. Being able to treat challenging experiences with a bit more levity, and expressing gratitude for all the gifts that are a part of my everyday life. The privilege of having access to a home, food, education, and technology. The gift of someone’s time, an act of kindness, and a smile. A listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, and words of encouragement. Learning a bit more every day, building resiliency, and surfing the ups and downs of life. Today is a microcosm of life, and we have the power of intention to guide how we move through it. Happiness might already be right here, rather than somewhere in the distant future or in a far-off place.

How we live our days is how we live our lives.

To read more of Richards work check out his blog at www.richardleethai.com/blog.

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