Why I Don’t Force Myself To Be Happy | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

Why I Don’t Force Myself To Be Happy

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Like many people, finding happiness used to be my goal in life, and as an avid consumer of personal development products I learned a lot of techniques for getting there.  You’ve probably heard many of these:  think positive thoughts, force yourself to smile, take a warm bath, and so on.

For a while, I diligently used these methods, and at first they did a fairly good job of perking me up when I fell into a funk.  But pretty soon, I noticed that using these techniques was starting to feel like a big effort.  Constantly countering negative thoughts with positive ones, “turning my frown upside down,” and so on, began to consume a lot of time and energy.  And I started wondering:  is happiness worthwhile if I have to work so hard for it?

From Rejection To Curiosity

When I started getting deeper into mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation, and really noticing what was going on inside me, my perspective on happiness began to change.  What I began to see was that my emotions are really just sensations I feel in my body.  For example, sadness for me is a heavy feeling in my stomach, and anger is a heat and tightness in my lower back.  (These words may mean different sensations to you.)

Another thing I started noticing is that, once I began seeing my emotions as simply physical sensations, they didn’t seem like such a problem anymore.  Before, when I’d start experiencing that heaviness in my stomach that I called “sadness,” I used to resist the feeling, telling myself “come on, chin up, there’s nothing to be sad about.”  My shoulders and my stomach would actually tense up as I tried to push the feeling away.

But today, when I get that feeling, my reaction is more like curiosity than rejection—“oh, it’s that sinking in my belly again,” I’ll say to myself calmly.  And when I have this curious perspective, I start noticing things about my sadness that I never saw back when I was trying to squelch it.  For instance, I notice that the heavy feeling seems to have a particular shape, color and temperature, and that it doesn’t just sit there—the energy actually moves around quite a bit before it fades away.

Most importantly, when I stop treating sadness as a problem, acting in spite of how I’m feeling becomes much easier.  When my attention is no longer focused on how awful it is to be sad, how I’d rather feel better, and so on, I can start actually thinking about what I want, and going after it, despite the sensations I’m feeling in my body.  Sadness, and other so-called “bad moods,” don’t have to paralyze me anymore.

I’d Rather Be Peaceful Than Happy

Today, I think of my goal in life as peace instead of happiness.  No matter how amazing my life becomes, I’m probably going to have “negative” feelings from time to time, and when those emotions come up I want to calmly allow them and even be curious about what they have to offer me.  I haven’t got this down completely—I have moments when I find myself fighting my emotions and telling myself I should feel differently.  But when I’m able to be at peace with whatever experience I’m having, life becomes a lot easier.

Of course, if techniques for making yourself happy are working for you, more power to you.  Everyone’s mind and body is unique, and different approaches work for different people.  But if trying to make yourself happy is feeling like a lot of frustration and work, I invite you to try something different for a moment.

When you feel unhappy, instead of resisting the feeling, try focusing on how that unhappiness feels in your body—like I talked about with the sinking feeling in my stomach.  What sensations tell you that you’re unhappy?  Notice how just asking this question changes how you relate to what you’re feeling.  Instead of being something threatening that you need to push away, your unhappiness becomes an object of curiosity.  And the more you inquire into it and understand it, the more peaceful and composed you can be when it comes up.

Link Love:  I want to spotlight Duff McDuffee’s new blog, Beyond Growth, which looks like it will be a welcome step forward in the evolution of personal development writing.  I thought about Duff when I was doing this post because I was saying something kind of counterintuitive and his writing often does this as well.

24 thoughts on
Why I Don’t Force Myself To Be Happy

  1. Evan

    Hi Chris,

    Just btw, when I tried to Stumble this it said that the blog wasn’t available.

    May be a problem with my account – though I’ve stumbled other stuff OK

  2. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Thanks for the heads up Evan. A few other people have had this problem — I think I’ll just create an RT icon and get rid of ShareThis, which I think is confusing to a lot of users anyway. I’ve reinstalled WordPress before but that didn’t seem to fix it.

  3. Evita

    This is excellent Chris as I think many people, especially today get caught up in the whole forced happiness paradigm in the areas of personal development.

    You know as a writer on these similar topics I have to say, while all these articles we write are very helpful, I really hope that people who are serious about changing their life, really dig deeper.

    Having bits and pieces of the puzzle leaves one I think confused if not frustrated in the end, and the person may turn away from all the “self-help” and “life is great” paradigms, or the new age stuff being nothing but fairy dust. But the truth is it works – it just depends on how one approaches it.

    As you said going within is key and I love what you said about emotions being our guidance. They really are.

    I don’t really find myself one to be forcing myself to be happy or on some quest to find happiness. I think like you, once I went within, I connected. And now I am peaceful and with that peace comes a very serene happiness that is just wonderful. I wish for all people to attain that, but I know each person has to walk along their own journey and find what they need all on their own time.

  4. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Thanks Evita. I have the same hope you do about the personal development blogosphere — that it can be a gateway into more serious self-exploration even if the attention span to do that in a blog setting isn’t there. It sounds like an interesting thing that happened for you is that you actually became happier when you stopped chasing after happiness — which is something I’ve found for myself as well.

  5. Amanda Linehan

    Hi Chris – Feeling your emotions as bodily sensations is an interesting idea. They don’t seem to be so overwhelming when you do that. Also, about pushing away unhappiness – painful emotions often have a lot of growth opportunities in them. When I sit with something that is painful, it often becomes less so. I, too, have found myself trying to pull myself back to happiness when really I should just listen to what my emotions are saying.

  6. Davina

    Chris, this is brilliant! I see peace happening when there is no duality. You know… no negative/positive, no good/bad, no judgment. No swinging of the pendulum, so to speak. When I have experienced this, I realize that most importantly, there is no expectation. I like how you don’t just focus on the mindfulness, but you tune into the awareness of the actual sensations you are feeling.

  7. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Thanks Amanda — it sounds like you have the experience of growing when you let yourself experience painful emotions. It’s always amazing to me how much we can gain by just sitting with ourselves, which at least to me can be just as challenging as running a marathon or doing something intensely physical.

  8. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Davina — yes, I think that’s a great way to describe peace — when we learn to let go of calling certain emotions, or any other experience we have, “negative” or “painful” — and then there’s no longer any obsessively clinging to or chasing “good” states.

  9. Megan "JoyGirl!" Bord

    I really like what you said here, and have found the same evolution within me. I let myself have “off” days now, and accept that like waves in the ocean, they come and go. What’s more, my “off” days now aren’t nearly as off as they were years ago and these days they’re not the norm. Peaceful and content is my norm. As things happen, I try to follow your lead and just observe them. No judgment, no attachment (if I can help it) – just observation.

  10. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Megan — it sounds like you’re letting go of the whole concept of an “off” day, and that’s helping you let go of the suffering you used to experience on those days as well. That feels great for me to hear.

  11. Juliet

    Hi Chris

    It’s true how feelings sit in our body and, when we don’t address or accept them, they become physical issues.

    As they say, what one resists persists.

    Juliet

  12. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Juliet — good to see you again. I’ve certainly witnessed what you’re talking about firsthand as I’ve gotten more into noticing what’s going on in my body and where I’m holding on to tension.

  13. Karl Staib - Work Happy Now

    I talk about happiness on my blog and your post is how I look at my happiness. A peaceful place where I’m just watching the show before me and my reactions. When we try to force ourselves to feel a certain way the painful feelings become more entrenched.

    I like how you say that you are curious. I think curiosity is a much underutilized art when working on ourselves. We get too caught up in trying to be happy instead of just enjoying where we are. I know that I do.

  14. Evelyn Lim

    I have come to the same conclusion myself. I am not necessarily seeking happiness but to be more at peace with my every moment. I also come into awareness that I have a choice to be at peace or in conflict, in a moment. With selecting to be at peace, genuine joy arises.

  15. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Karl — I like what you said about curiosity — and I’ve found that, when I just stay interested in what’s going on for me rather than trying to change anything about my experience, whatever discomfort is there starts to dissolve.

  16. Marie

    Hi, Chris -

    I have recently discovered that if I struggle to push away the emotions I don’t want, I actually make them worse. If I embrace them, they come and go very quickly. So, I was pleased to see that your post expressed a similar concept. Thank you!

    - Marie (Coming Out of the Trees)

  17. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Hi Marie — good to meet you! Yes, that’s funny, isn’t it, how fighting or fleeing from our experience actually makes it more painful? This is one of the main ideas of my work on productivity — that procrastination actually happens when we aren’t willing to be with the thoughts and feelings that arise during our work.

  18. Giovanna Garcia

    Hi Chris

    I do beleive we can make a choice to be a happy person. However, I agree with you that we can’t forces ourselves to be happy. We have to allow ourselves all the feelings that we feel. I like what you said about “Peaceful.” Great post. Stumbled!

    Thanks for sharing.
    Giovanna Garcia
    Imperfect Action is better than No Action

  19. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Thanks Giovanna — I think saying we have a choice is a good way to put it. For me, the choice is between allowing what you’re feeling to be there, and resisting it — and when we allow it my experience is that we find more happiness in the end.

  20. Robin

    I agree with you very much, Chris – I get tired of seeing blog posts about putting on a smile and being happy – don’t these people know ANYTHING about how suppressing feelings causes illness?

  21. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Thanks Robin — it would be pretty revolutionary if we could all just walk around and allow our bodies to go through their natural emotional cycles, and we didn’t feel the need to look a certain way or protect ourselves. Like you say, I think that would do wonders for our health.

  22. Stacey Shipman

    I’ll never forget the morning I woke up, rolled over and said to my husband “I’m in a crappy mood today” He responded: “You don’t have to be happy every day you know.”

    Relief.

    We have different emotions for a reason, and there is so much information out there that says (at least in my interpretation) don’t feel it, be happy. Physical awareness (or how it shows up in your body) has truly saved me. And I got that from yoga and meditation. Instead of pushing the heaviness in the belly away, I now sit with it “What’s the anxiety” I ask myself. (My belly heaviness = anxious feelings!)

    So true..I believe you have to feel it in order to understand it. So often we fight to push it away, no feeling.

  23. Chris Edgar - Post author

    Thanks Stacey — that sounds like a great feeling, to be accepted wherever you’re at emotionally by someone close to you. And it sounds like you have the same kind of attitude toward yourself, which I know is a great relief as well.

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