What keeps you from being happy?

Happy people in Manchester, England; Getty Images/Daylife

Welcome to the weekly Happiness Project meeting! Today I’d like to share some thoughts – and get your input – about definitions of happiness and why we avoid doing things that might make us happy. Both defining the word and knowing what keeps us stuck in our misery-pattern is key if the happiness is the goal.

My Webster’s dictionary defines the term “happy” in four ways:

  • favored by circumstances; lucky; fortunate
  • having, showing or causing a feeling of great pleasure, contentment, joy, etc; joyous, glad, pleased
  • exactly appropriate to the occasion; suitable and clever; apt; felicitous
  • intoxicated, or irresponsibly quick to act; see: slap-happy trigger-happy

I’m not sure any of those definitions fit what I consider to be happiness. I find it intriguing that one definition is acting as is exactly suitable for a circumstance. I mean, think about it: If I won the Pulitzer, I might act one way, while you might act another and who is to decide what is “exactly appropriate”?Looking at those definitions, the only thing I know for sure is that pleasure is not the same as happiness. I get a lot of pleasure eating chocolate, but later feel horrible because I know it isn’t good for my body. So, does that chocolate really make me happy? I’m not so sure. The closest the dictionary definition comes to what I feel as happiness is contentment, I think. It’s a feeling that all is right in your world, in spite of whatever sucky outside circumstances there may be. It isn’t tied to possessions as much as it is tied to a feeling of being useful, of knowing that you make a positive difference in your small (or large) circle. So, question to the crowd: How do you define happiness?

The harder part is why we sometimes avoid doing things we know will make us happy. For instance, let’s say you hate the way you feel when you yell at your 6-year-old to get ready for school, and you KNOW that if you just got up 15 minutes earlier, you wouldn’t be rushed and thus, would be less likely to have a screaming fit at breakfast. For a few days you get up earlier and see it makes things better, but then old habits slip in and you find yourself staying in bed and pretty soon you’re back to the rushed, angry mornings. What is it that is keeping you from doing what you KNOW will make the morning routine better and thus, increase your contentment/happiness?

For me, it all seems to be about time – the things that appear to bring me more peace and joy take time, and I feel

It is all about time
It is all about time

like I’m so far behind in life already, I just don’t have the time to give. A perfect example was Monday. Ever since I was laid off from my job as a reporter, I’ve vacillated between choices for my future. I’ve gone back and forth between options as varied as living away from my husband for the next five years so I could take reporting positions out of state, to opening an organizing business, to designing Web sites. One day I would think, yes, this is the way; the next, no, that is the way.

For nearly a decade, I’ve sought advice from a thoughtful, peaceful academic who is both a scientist and a theologian about which fork to take in the road. One of the suggestions he’s made to me (over and over and over again) is to spend time just “being” with my choices. Don’t analyze, don’t stress, just be quiet. Tune out the world, tune out your own head and meditate on the options and after some time, there will be clarity. One of the signs that you’re headed in the right direction, he’s said, is that if you think about choice 1 and you feel anxious and you think about choice 2 and you feel peace. In that case, choice 2 is probably the one that will, in the long run, bring you more happiness. Since “impatience” is my middle name, and since I’m more akin to a human do-ing than a human be-ing, this advice has long sat by the wayside because I could never be still longer than about five minutes. (Having the attention span of a gnat is the cross I bear in this life.)

But Monday, after a long weekend of discussions with my husband, push came to shove. We had to make a decision about which way for me to turn because the angst that comes from not knowing was too much to bear. So, having tried everything else my way for the past 2.5 months, I gave my friends’ advice a chance. I woke up not knowing what I would do, but having three options before me. I blogged, I worked on my novel, I did everything I could to avoid doing what I KNEW would bring me happiness (making a darn decision), because I had no idea how long it would take.

Finally, at about 2:30 p.m., I gave into silence. I walked, I read a little, I sat out in the sun. I turned off the phone, I stayed away from the computer. At first it was noisy in my head, lots of panic about the choices. But I just ignored it and sat there and at about 3:15, the silence felt deeper, and my head started clearing. It was like a room full of laundry slowly folding itself into piles. And when it was all folded, it was clear what option would be best for my life and our family situation at this particular time. I glanced at the other piles, gave them some thought, waited to see if they would give me the peace it felt I was drawing from the other choice. And at about 5 p.m., I knew what I should do as clearly as if someone had written it down for me. And, here’s the kicker: I felt really good about it, in spite of days of telling myself there was no way I could ever chose that option, that the one and only thing I could ever be or do is journalism.

The whole thing took 2.5 hours and resulted in more peace than I’ve felt in a very long time – like more than 10 years. I would like to say that I’ll do it again, but I know myself. I probably won’t, until pushed b the next mini-crisis, even though I know the silence made me happier. So, the question to you readers and Happiness Project participants is this: Is there something you know that would make you happy and yet you won’t do it? If so, why? What do you think keeps us from doing the things that will make our lives more peaceful, more joyful, more full of bliss?

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9 Replies to “What keeps you from being happy?”

  1. Love the article and i truly understand. for me its getting out of a very toxic relationship. i know and understand my life will be more joyful and full of love out it but its the letting go. no need to worry though my head has let go but not my heart, rrrr frustrating.


  2. I’m one of your Happiness Wednesday “members”, so here are my thoughts on what is happiness: a temporary state of being, of feeling joy brought on by selected activities, behavior, and things.  More definitions and clarifications to follow on Wednesdays…


  3. Actually I don’t think “happiness” is a worthy goal – using the word “contentment” comes considerably closer.
    (If what you want is “happiness” I understand that morphine guarantees it better than anything).
    “Happiness” is basically a mental state – something which occurs in your brain.
    Drugs are famous for doing this, of course, but it is also something that you can train your brain to do, through meditation.
    Buddhists who meditate may be able to train their brains to feel genuine happiness and control aggressive instincts, research has shown.


  4. Okay, I’m late in coming, but I come as a happy person because I have been taking care of myself while on retreat this week. Many preparations have led to this time of happiness for me. I have to say, though, that I’m coming up on a big decision, and hearing your process has been helpful. Especially since I’m in a place in which I can actually clear my brain for a bit, I’m going to try to follow through and see what might happen. Thank you for sharing! By the way, I think some of the more negative comments I see here are an interesting study in unhappiness. I think I’m learning from them that you can always find negative if you look hard enough, but isn’t it better to be pleasant? I think being pleasant even if you disagree with someone makes one a happier person. That’s my definition for today.


  5. I was initiated into Transcendental Meditation in 1971. I have been meditating ever since. It works.  I would say, however, that the state of consciousness that follows transcends the idea of “happy”.  There are no adjectival conditions here. No words.  And as my Psychiatrist pal likes to say, “the itty, bitty, shitty committee,” in your head takes a hike!
    Retreats at the Benedictine Monastery in Saint David, Arizona, with a weekend of silent prayer can usher in a bit of happiness.
    Every day with my wife, makes me happy. She is a sacred woman.


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