The Pressure to be Happy. How Not to Fall in the Happy Trap


We've addressed some performance pressures in the January series about goals, but there’s a more insidious pressure in life that tends to be more damaging and ultimately less attainable; the pressure to be happy.

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People use it as a justification for others when we don’t understand someone else’s life choices, Well, as long as it makes them happy. But what is happiness to start with? Most people associate it with feeling contented, at peace, not wanting for anything else. But isn’t that a mighty tall order for anyone to fill? Basically most descriptions of happiness seem to imply enlightenment or nirvana, but we wouldn’t go around saying, well I wouldn’t date that guy but if you achieve nirvana I suppose that’s okay. I am sure you can see the flaw in that logic.

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We manage huge life decisions like changing careers, moving cities, and the fates of our relationships based on whether we feel happy in them. While a good job, relationship or environment does lend itself to feeling content most of the time, the expectation that we should be happy during 100% of a job … in meetings, on lunch breaks, during an interaction with a tough client, is pretty absurd. Likewise in a relationship. Sometimes you are just going to be lying in bed next to each other while scrolling on your phone. Is that bad? Not really, is that wildly happy? Probably not that either.

However, a lot of people would look at that activity and think, something’s wrong, let’s spice this up. We often focus so much on “fixing” our negative or neutral feelings, the focus seems to shift from the happy times to the less happy ones.  In the effort to be happier, we end up focusing on our "happiness failures."  As my bedside-scrolling-partner likes to say, the key to happiness is low expectations.  

It isn’t that you shouldn't be happy, it's more that you should not expect to be happy all of the time.

The range and depth of human emotions enhance your experience of life. Being content is a wonderful emotion of course, but so is the feeling after a good cry. We were all happy after the Hangover and Pineapple Express, but they don't win Oscars, poignant dramas do.

But when it comes to having “all the feels” it seems like we shy away from those other feelings or push through them. Think of the albeit hilarious, but cringe-y selfie-films of girls crying and still trying to post on social media proving that they are still okay. Why not just cry? Emotions will not kill you, and of course, you will still be okay. The upside of those videos is seeing that most of Instagram is just a highlight reel, it usually doesn't include tears and we need to remember that tears are meant to happen at times.

Now let’s tackle the harder problem: some emotion in the middle. Extreme feelings like infatuation, sadness, anger…those are easier to understand and identify, and you can often pinpoint their origins. But if you are anything like me, the feeling of meh is more perplexing. My mind starts trying to make sense of it (and admittedly overthinking it) asking inane questions like why aren’t I happy, am I doing something wrong?  And that’s where it all spirals.

Most people feel the need to either be happy or cite some legitimate reason for being unhappy, this is the source of many unnecessary woes. Why do you think Karen starts drama in the break room? Or the woman behind you in line starts complaining about the Starbucks employees who are within earshot? Likely because they are trying to explain to themselves why they aren’t happy even though they have a secure job, and delicious coffee. We all have little ways of doing this, or perhaps you don't do anything outward, but you keep asking yourself, what's wrong with me, why can't I be happy?  The thing is, this sabotages our okay days and categorizes them anew as bad days simply because we aren’t elated at life. 

Try to shift your focus using mindfulness in order to just experience the environment and emotion at had without labeling it good or bad.  Journaling about what certain emotions feel like physically is also a good way of making them more objective.  Try not to judge your emotions, and don't confuse behaviors for emotions, behaviors can be helpful or hurtful but emotions are just feelings that naturally come up. 

Try out any of the following resources for relieving the pressure to be happy all the time:

  • The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman
  • Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn
  • The Little Book of Stoicism: Timeless Wisdom to Gain Resilience, Confidence, and Calmness by Jonas Salzgeber

Sarah Russ, LCSW is a mental health professional in Miami focused on practical, actionable therapeutic strategies for mental well-being in a world of overstimulation and misconceptions about what constitutes true self-care. Sarah received her Master of Social Work from NYU and has been working in mental health for seven years. She specializes in healthy coping strategies and crisis management for those with chronic illnesses, substance use, and anxiety. You can follow her @mentalhealthformillenials or schedule a session with her at Arvon & Associates in Aventura, Doral, or Virtually by calling 305-936-8000.

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