Why You Suck at Being Happy and What to Do About It

Mark ReaganHappiness4 Comments

Sad grey woman



It’s almost double the population of the entire United States. It’s also the number of results Google brings up when you search for “How to Be Happy.”


I think if there’s one, single thing everyone wants, it’s to be happy. Sometimes we go about it in good ways, like helping others and practicing gratitude. Other times we go about it in ways that hurt others.


All to make ourselves feel better.


There’s plenty of articles on being happy, from “Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Happy,” to “The 15 Habits of Incredibly Happy People.” There’s good info in those… if you follow them, surely you’ll become happy… right?


With that much information out there, why isn’t everyone happy? Shouldn’t we be walking around in a state of permanent bliss?


Maybe we suck at being happy.


happiness dog Unlike dogs. Dogs are awesome at being happy.

Or maybe we don’t. What if we’re going about happiness wrong?


What if happiness isn’t a goal we can aim for?


“I just want to be happy.”


How many times have we heard that?


I’ve heard it from friends, loved ones, even myself.


We ALL want to be happy.  


Nobody, I believe, wants to be miserable. If we’re making ourselves miserable, I think we’re actually doing it for deeper reasons we think will bring us happiness – and in the short term, maybe they do.


If you search for happiness on Amazon, it comes back with more than 85,000 books on happiness. We have more information on happiness today than at any time in history, and with each book and blog post it’s only increasing.


So with this much information literally at our fingertips, why is depression and suicide rates rising?


Shouldn’t they be decreasing?


A study done at UCLA found that “The proportion of students who “frequently” felt depressed increased to 9.5 percent.”


sad window kid

This statistic from the National Institute of Mental Health says “About 11 percent of adolescents have a depressive disorder by age 18…”



The statistic about self-harm are worse:  


  • “Each year, 1 in 5 females and 1 in 7 males engage in self injury.
  • 90 percent of people who engage in self harm begin during their teen or pre-adolescent years.”


It surprised me when a woman I was interested in told me she used to cut herself and showed me the scars along her arms. Later, when another woman I fell for told me she used to cut herself, it surprised me again. But with odds like that, it’s not surprising at all.


With the amount of information being produced on happiness, it seems clear to me we want it very badly. It’s like we’re desperately looking to cure a disease and yet the disease is only getting worse.


From my own experience, I’m not surprised about the depression statistics, especially with the college statistics: I was one of those college students who “frequently felt depressed.” Looking back, it’s kind of amazing I got through it and am here to write this post.


Dr. Martin Seligman writes about depression in his book, Learned Optimism. He gives some startling statistics as well, such as:


  • Young people today are ten times more likely to suffer depression than their grandparents were.
  • And that people who have relatives who have had severe depression are at a higher risk for it themselves.


Seligman puts forward two key ideas of why depression has increased:


  1. We’ve exalted “the self,” presenting ourselves with nearly unlimited choice.
  2. We no longer have a supporting context when we fail.

Exalting the Self and Increasing Choices


Our society places a large emphasis on personal choice. Life isn’t clear cut like it might have used to be. If you were a serf bound to the land, there was little reason to have an existential crisis – you knew exactly what your role was, is, and was going to be.


If you were the son or daughter of a lord, it was mostly the same – your role was set in stone.


This was neither good or bad, it was just the way things are.


Nowadays, we have a lot more freedom. I enjoy this freedom, but nearly unlimited choice brings its own problems, one of the larger effects of this is Decision Paralysis. I wrote about it a little in my last post, and the long and short of it is:


When confronted with too many choices, instead of picking something, we choose nothing instead. We shut down and move on.


Today we have more choice than any other people in history, and it’s growing. Even if we’re not rich, the choice is massive. Just walk into a nearby Walmart and you can see a small portion of the choices we have in terms of material goods. Walmarts are cathedrals of choice, and even then, Walmart in and of itself is a choice.


Not to mention Amazon, Ebay, Alibaba, and thousands of others.


Choices packed within choices. Then there’s the immaterial choices, like our jobs.


From early on, the importance of our careers is often pressed on us, and we’re presented with numerous choices. In highschool I remember doing worthless job aptitude tests; I scored highly on something like “Weapon Maintenance Technician” for the military – a far cry from writer and life coach.


I don’t there’s anything wrong with having more choice.


But I do think our education system hasn’t caught up with it since it was modeled after factories from the industrial revolution.


worker broken system

The education system. Tired and overworked.

I don’t know how much impact our current education has on depression, but based on those statistics above about adolescent self-harm, I’m guessing it’s certainly not helping – It’s odd to me to have a society of nearly infinite choice, but then an education system that limits it, if not takes it away completely. Seligman talks about that as well, and how lack of choice can cause learned helplessness.


Growing up we’re told we can be anything, to a paralyzing degree, and then in other environments choice – and the resulting autonomy – is taken away.


That’s what I think self-harm does – It’s a way to give you a sense of control in a world where there doesn’t feel you have any.


To make this worse, our culture pairs unlimited choice with something else: impossible expectations. From a young age we’re bombarded with images of what we’re supposed to be: impossibly attractive, wealthy superhero rockstars.


We’re all supposed to live up to the ideal that’s only a reality of an infinitesimal percentage of the population. And for the overwhelming majority of us, it’s impossible.


It creates a situation where we have unlimited choice, little control, and are supposed to live up to an impossible dream.


We couldn’t make ourselves feel more stuck if we tried.  


Removing Society’s Support Structures


Take increasing choice with the importance on ourselves coupled with an impossible ideal, and then take in Seligman’s second point, that traditional structures people used to rely on have been eroded, and you have a recipe for the depression epidemic.


Seligman writes: “When we encountered failure, we could pause and take our rest in [a context of meaning and hope]…and revive our sense of who we were… [consisting of] a belief in the nation, in God, in one’s family…”


So people could fall back on their faith, or their sense of duty to society/the nation in times of trouble and move forward with confidence that everything was going to turn out ok and regain their bearings.


But the traditional structures of society have degraded and look like they’ll continue to do so. Those structures used to guide us, acting as a compass for our lives. But the amount of choice twe have now has flipped the magnetic poles on us and the compass is spinning wildly.


So What the Hell Do We Do?

Happiness… cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than one’s self.Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning


Viktor Frankl, if you haven’t heard of him before, was a psychologist and concentration camp survivor. His book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” details his experience.


His quote above hits it on the head. We all want happiness, but happiness is not a goal. Neither is success, which people often think will make them happy.


They’re both side effects.


One is a chemical reaction in our bodies, and the definition of the other isn’t universal – it’s determined by each of us. It’s another choice.


I think the nearly unlimited amount of information on happiness is trying to solve a complex problem: unhappiness.


But here’s the thing: happiness comes and goes. It’s not constant.


This is because… wait for it…


We’re only human.


Happiness is a neurochemical reaction to our perception of an event. It is literally a side-effect to how we view something. As is sadness, anger, and most other emotions. We see unhappiness as a problem and try to fill it, only we can’t because there’s no hole to actually fill.


Happiness is not the prize. It’s a by-product from obtaining the prize.


We often want to skip straight to the side-effect. We want to skip the prize, and all of the work that goes into obtaining that prize. We want life to be easy.


And to do so, we’ve created solutions that are just as complex as the problem.


Chip and Dan Heath in their book Switch, talk about this and how we see problems as holes. The bigger the hole, the bigger solution we need to fill it.


They tell a story about a team who went to fight malnutrition in rural Vietnam. To “solve” this problem, something on a large scale could have been attempted with lots of charts and graphs and outside aid and ideas.


Something like that may work, but it would’ve been prohibitively expensive. So the team didn’t create a solution – they found a solution that the rural people already had: the mothers of healthy children were feeding them types of food the other mothers weren’t.


Then they had the mothers of the healthy children then teach the other mothers what to do.


Damn simple.


I feel the amount of books and articles produced on happiness are like seeing the hole and figuring out how to fill it with a giant solution.


I think it’s really much simpler than an article of 1,000 Easy Steps to Be Happy.


The solution is simple. Viktor Frankl spells it out in his book, and Martin Seligman gets to it as well.


How to Be Happier in One Step


  1. Do what’s meaningful for you.


There! Easy, right?


No, not really. It’s simple, but definitely easier said than done.


What fulfills you?


Maybe it’s taking care of your family. Maybe it’s donating yourself to a cause.


Maybe it’s something small.


Helping others improve their lives is fulfilling to me. Sometimes I’m able to do this in a big way with a client who completely turns things around.


But it’s the small ways that happen more often like:


Talking to a friend in need on the phone and giving them some new perspective.

Helping people on Reddit and sending them resources.

Helping my girlfriend with her business by taping up shipping boxes.

These are the small things we sometimes ignore – we shouldn’t.


What is fulfillment?

What is fulfillment

Fulfillment, to me, comes from when we feel we’re doing something purposeful. No matter how much our culture says, it doesn’t come from being fabulously wealthy, insanely attractive, or getting promotions at work.


Fulfillment, however, does not equal happiness.


It trumps happiness.


Happiness comes and goes. It’s the side effect of the prize.


And the prize, to me, is taking those purposeful actions that fulfill you.


Happiness isn’t the only emotion that comes from it, others are there, too. The catch is though, what’s fulfilling isn’t always going to bring you happiness.


For instance, as I write this blog post, I feel it’s fulfilling and “on purpose” for me. Does it make me happy? Sort of. Other emotions I’ve had going through this have been sadness at looking at those statistics earlier, compassion for those people and their loved ones, passionate because of the subject I’m writing about, and more.


When you see Martin Luther King Jr. giving his “I Have a Dream” speech, is he happy?


I don’t know about you, but that does not look like a happy man to me. But was he living and acting with a strong sense of purpose? Yes.


Often we want to run away from “negative” emotions and only feel good ones. But having a sense of purpose helps you weather the other emotions. It helps you stay your course. It can be true north for our spinning compasses.


Emotions are neither negative or positive, they just are. They’re those side-effects of being human, and they’re not goals in and of themselves.


What if I don’t know what my purpose is?


“What’s the meaning of life?”


This question is unhelpful. Why? Because each of our lives is different, and we’ll never truly know.


Some people think life is entirely meaningless. I don’t. Even then, I think there’s a better question out there that Frankl asks.


What if instead of asking life what it’s meaning is, what if it’s life asking us?

What if we create the meaning of our own lives?


I don’t think we can know what our true purpose in life is until we’re at the very end of it, and even then, maybe we can’t – it’s like putting together a puzzle: we can’t see the whole picture until it’s finished.


We can guess at it, sure. But we don’t have that complete picture yet..


But what we can do is go from moment to moment, each day asking ourselves questions like, “What is life asking of me today?” or “What meaning do I want to make of my life?” or, “At this very moment, what is my purpose?”


Maybe that meaning today is being with a loved one, or making a creative work. Maybe it’s helping a friend or those less fortunate.


It can be anything. But we might not know if we don’t ask.


Much of the advice in happiness articles can actually be very helpful. It can help you live better and be happier more easily.


But as long as we focus on happiness as a goal in and of itself, we’re passing on the greater reward of taking fulfilling action.


We don’t have to seek happiness to have it, but we can create space for it to come into our lives. And I think if you look at the people who have been most influential, and most happy, they aren’t out there trying to be happy.


They’re out there making a difference… and they’re experiencing all that comes with that, happiness, sadness, and everything in between, and moving forward powered by a strong sense of purpose.


So today, take purposeful action, and ask yourself:


What for me is fulfilling?


And what today, right now, is life asking of me?

4 Comments on “Why You Suck at Being Happy and What to Do About It”

  1. Thank you for your article, Mark.
    I was having one of those ‘not so happy’ days and what you wrote about happiness as a side effect of a fulfilling action helped to turn it all around.
    I can see that feeling happy boils down to really knowing oneself. Because once we do, we are be able to choose those things and actions that make our meaning/purpose and allow us feel fulfilled – happy in result. And the only way to get to know oneself is through action and observation and learning as much as we can. I can see how a life coach like you can help with that too :)
    Really cool perspective – thanks!

  2. Wow! I love how you’ve structured this Mark, weaving in meaningful statistics and quotes from inspirational figures.

    I believe a lot of the challenges these days around ‘feeling happy’ lie in the negative influence of the mass media. People spend so much of their time watching TV and reading newspapers, and become convinced that the world is a scary place and/or that everyone else is so much luckier/happier/richer, etc than they are!

    Happiness indexes consistently show that the happiest people are in countries who have little in terms of monetary wealth, and who find contentment in simple pleasures.

    Having given up (actually I’ve stopped rather than given up to use Alan Carr’s analogy) living life in the fast lane, made a conscious choice not to have a TV or read newspapers, to become self-employed so I have the freedom and flexibility to have time off and spend it with family and friends on my terms, to sell our house and live on a narrowboat thereby also not having a car or having to drive in the relentless traffic here in UK, I can honestly say that I recognise ‘being happy’ most of the time.

    Thank you for the hours I know you will have put into writing this post Mark, it was a very enjoyable and informative read.


    1. That’s so interesting to me you live on a boat! For you, what’s been the biggest shift for you with it?

      And you make a great point with the media. It just feeds our brain’s Negativity Bias to an extreme amount. Have you ever looked into Appreciative Inquiry? It’s one of those things that’s structured around examining the positive, and is loaded with goodies for coaches.

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