Happiness is a desirable state. Yet, for many of us, it feels elusive. If our necessities for survival are met, and we’re not dealing with severe physiological and mental health issues, it boils down to how we think and perceive. If you’re struggling to find happiness within yourself, it could be because of one or more of these seven reasons. (Estimated reading time: 8-9 minutes)
“”Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it.”— Eckhart Tolle
All of us must deal with life’s ups and downs. Whether it’s a snide remark made by a co-worker or big events like a breakup or loss, the downs can toss us into a descending spiral.
Buddhists believe that people experience “suffering” (a catch-all term for pain, unhappiness, stress, and dissatisfaction) as they go through the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth – something they refer to as “Dukkha.” When we accept this, we experience peace.
Those who resist the inevitable nature of human life will experience emotional roller coasters, with highs and lows that drain and wipe them out. They get so caught up in the waves of their emotions that they forget that peace is always accessible within.
According to a 2021 report by the World Health Organization (WHO), 450 million people have a mental illness, and 1 in 4 Americans currently suffers from at least one mental illness. These numbers continue to increase every year. Clearly, there’s an urgent need to equip people with coping skills to help them weather the storms of life.
So, why can’t people just be happy? If necessities for survival are met, and we’re not dealing with severe physiological and mental health issues, it boils down to how we think and perceive. It may sound simple in theory, but it’s not always easy to apply in real life.
I still find myself getting caught up in negative spells. Whenever that happens, I remind myself that it’s as normal to have days when I feel disappointed as it is to have days when I’m content and overjoyed. As long as my mood doesn’t interfere with my life to an extreme degree, embracing the full spectrum of human existence is okay.
When you embody happiness and peace, you fortify yourself with the strength and insight that can help you navigate the blocks and bends on the road. Based on my research and conversations with leading personal growth experts and spiritual leaders, here are the most common reasons you can’t find happiness within yourself:
1. You’re aiming for the wrong type of happiness.
Most of us believe that happiness is a destination we reach if we tick several boxes. These boxes are determined by society’s definition of success which usually includes having a college degree, a high-flying career, a mansion in a lush neighborhood, and a gorgeous spouse with 2.5 kids.
While these accomplishments can make you happy, they do not guarantee fulfillment. There are plenty of people who arrive at that place and feel like something is missing. What they don’t realize is that they were basing their entire happiness on the superficial trappings of success and not on what makes them truly happy, which is always simpler and more accessible.
In pursuing material and social success, other important aspects of life get sidelined, like relationships and human connection, contribution and having a positive impact on others, and a spiritual practice that helps develop a moral compass.
In his book, “The Road to Character,” David Brooks writes, “We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness.” Humans seek to live lives not just of pleasure, but of “purpose, righteousness and virtue.” According to Brooks, the best life is centered on moral joy, gratitude, tranquility, and excellence. “Life is essentially a moral drama, not a hedonistic one,” he states.
2. You have the wrong mental models.
Mental models are personal representations of outer reality that people refer to when interacting with the world. These mental models are constructed based on their unique perceptions, life experiences, and understanding of the world.
In a talk at Columbia University, Dr. Srikumar Rao, a professor at the business school, said that we have been raised to develop an ingrained preoccupation with success/fail outcomes, which gets in the way of our happiness. He says:
“You have spent your entire life learning to be unhappy. And the way we learn to be unhappy is by buying into a particular mental model. The problem isn’t that we have mental models, the problem is that we don’t know we have mental models, we think that’s the way the world works.”
Rao says that one such mental model that traps us is the “if-then” model. It deludes us into believing that we can only be happy if we accomplish something we yearn for, whether in our professional or personal lives. We’re cheered on by others to “keep going,” “not give up,” and “reach for the stars.”
Rao says it’s a flawed model. If we buy into it, we’ll find ourselves moving from one cherished goal to the next without ever feeling fulfilled. Once the initial thrill fades, we set our sights on something else and start a new chase.
We fail to consider that outcomes are not always under our control and that things can happen out of the blue to derail our plans. We meet the person of our dreams and date them for a while, only to find out they were married all along. We work diligently at our jobs, but the boss promotes a brown-nosing rival, and our career growth halts.
Deconstructing and replacing the if-then model will make you less attached to outcomes and more focused on your current state of being and how you can find happiness within yourself in the present moment. All while planning for the future from a place of strength.
3. You’re unclear about what you want.
At some point, we’ve all been in a state of confusion where we’ve felt unsure about what to do. Often, we figure out the general direction we would like to take but sometimes get stuck.
Having no idea what you want from life is like walking inside a dark room. The only way to turn on the light is to get clarity. People who are unclear often end up living someone else’s dreams and doing what society and culture espouse as the “right thing to do.”
But life is not a one-size-fits-all affair. As confused and unsure as you may feel, you have more insight about what you want than you think. Chances are that you did not take the time to go within and connect to your deeper desires.
So, how do we gain clarity about what we want and what will make us happy? The answer is not straightforward because we are complex beings. We’re not a single, coherent self with specific needs; we are a mix of contradictory wants and needs. For instance, you may want the freedom of being an entrepreneur, but another part of you likes getting a steady paycheck.
The only way to get to the bottom of what you want is to find your values and purpose and develop goals that align with them. If one of your values is compassion, an example of a value-based goal is volunteering at an animal shelter and fostering pets.
4. You don’t have a healthy relationship with time.
The clock ticks away – a reality that we can’t change, no matter who we are and what we do. Most people don’t realize this until later in life when they sense that the end of their earthly journey is near.
Until then, many of us simply move through the motions, rushing from one thing to the next without taking the time to soak in the joy of every moment. We mistakenly believe that we have endless time ahead of us, so we take it for granted.
Another common issue that prevents us from cultivating this deep, real-time awareness is our tendency to dwell in different mental time zones. We get stuck in thoughts about the past or the future, which prevents us from living in the present.
When you develop a healthy relationship with time, you awaken to the fact that you should take in everything – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Instead of zoning out and being numb to the vibrancy of your present, you can become more purposeful in everything you do. This instantly alters the quality of your awareness and how you experience life and find happiness within yourself.
5. Your life is stagnant and you’re not growing.
Humans like comfort and familiarity, but without healthy challenges, things get boring. When life gets monotonous without opportunities to grow beyond our comfort zone, we experience stagnancy. We need to be creatively or mentally stimulated to feel alive.
According to coach Tony Robbins, “progress equals happiness.” He says that while achievements and material things can make you happy now, the happiness we get from them doesn’t last. If we want lasting joy and fulfillment, we must ensure that we’re growing and impacting those around us.
Robbins says we can’t just live on cruise control and live happily. Once we reach a certain level, there will always be another level. “That never ends because if you stop growing, you’re going to be unhappy,” he says.
As tempting as it is, avoid resting on your laurels — actively set challenges for yourself that help you make progress, build your knowledge and skills, enrich your perspective, and find happiness within yourself.
6. You don’t carve out time to self-reflect and ground yourself.
Self-reflection is the process of turning your focus towards your thoughts and noticing what’s happening in your life mindfully and openly. It’s a key practice to find happiness within yourself. Many of us are too busy to take the time to stop and go within.
When we take the time to observe our thoughts, emotions, and actions, we develop a clearer and more coherent perspective. This equips us with the self-knowledge to enhance and make needed changes in our lives.
Author Iyanla Vanzant says, “The journey into self-love and self-acceptance must begin with self-examination. Until you take the journey of self-reflection, it is almost impossible to grow or learn in life”.
If your mind is turbulent, having a grounding practice can bring you back to a state of inner peace. Our minds are preoccupied with worries and concerns, and we quickly become ungrounded and out of balance.
Spiritual grounding can help us get out of our heads and reestablish a harmonious flow of energy between the mind, body, and spirit. If you find yourself unable to find happiness within yourself, are distracted by busy thoughts, or are overwhelmed by a never-ending to-do list, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and realign with your center.
7. You’re confusing happiness with joy.
Happiness can sometimes seem vague and out of reach. It’s based on a general evaluation of how we feel about our lives based on immediate events. The problem is, the factors that impact our happiness are not within our control, and when things are not going our way, it’s easy to believe we’re unhappy.
Joy, on the other hand, is simpler and more accessible. Joy is not something that we need to manufacture. It’s already within us from when we entered the world, pure and receptive to all the love and wonder. It’s available in the small and simple moments of life.
In her book, “Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness,” Fetell Lee writes that joy is something that we can consciously weave into our days and tune into. For instance, you can visit the beach in the evening to watch a sunset or attend a comedy show to get a few laughs.
Trying to be happy all the time is the equivalent of chasing rainbows. Instead, we should enhance our lives with joy.
While happiness is desirable, it’s not the only thing that matters. To have a full human experience, we must go through various emotions. The passion that comes from anger, the depth that comes from sadness, and the maturity that comes from loss all contribute to making us whole and alive.
All my best on your journey,
Questions for you: What are some practices that you follow to find happiness within yourself? What tends to get in the way of you finding joy?
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