A couple of weeks ago, I visited the Taipei zoo in Taiwan. This is the zoo where the movie The Life of Pi was filmed.
There were dozens of classes of kindergarteners visiting that day, hundreds of smiling, giggling kids each sporting a bright blue cap, blue jacket and little blue knapsack. They were overjoyed at everything! Not just the animals; they would stop and point excitedly at flowers, bugs on the sidewalk, leaves—anything brought them joy.
Later that day, I rode the metro through Taipei and I saw the sullen, downcast faces of adults. These very same adults were once like the children I had seen. The children knew how to be happy—it was natural for them. But, somehow we adults tend to lose our capacity for joy.
Returning home to the United States, I began to ponder why we lose our grasp of happiness as we get older and I realized that there are strong barriers to happiness. Happiness is like water. It should flow naturally but as we get older our happiness pipes get clogged up.
Studies have found that children laugh 400 times a day whereas adults laugh only 15 times each day.
If your desire is to get happier, then it is important to understand and avoid these 4 barriers to happiness.
1. Unrealistic Expectations
There is confusion about what we mean with regards to happiness. The best definition I’ve found comes from Psychology Today:
What is happiness? The most useful definition—and it’s one agreed upon by neuroscientists, psychiatrists, behavioral economists, positive psychologists, and Buddhist monks, is more like satisfied or content than ‘happy’ in its strict bursting-with-glee sense.
If we think happiness is “bursting-with-glee” all the time we will conclude that we are not happy. Other people may be, but we’re not.
Happiness is not an all or nothing proposition. Happiness exists along a continuum. In fact, I believe that there is no such thing as unhappiness; only lower levels of happiness. Just like there is no such thing as darkness; only lower levels of light.
When we embrace that happiness is not a never-ending state of bliss but rather a foundation of contentment, we realize that it is within our grasp.
2. Contempt for happiness
The United States, founded upon Puritan ideals, harbors a great deal of latent contempt for happiness. Our Puritan founders seemed to eschew anything that might make one feel happy. H.L. Mencken quipped, “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere might be happy.”
We tend to view happy people as naive, frivolous, disconnected and flighty. Think of a CEO or high government official and your mind will conjure up a steel-jawed, solemn, determined individual. We want leaders to smile and be affable before they are promoted or elected—this makes them likeable. But, power is serious business and we want our leaders to be serious.
Similarly, we all want to feel important ourselves and important people have important problems. Our problems must, therefore, be significant for us to feel significant.
3. Other people
Other people, especially parents or others with whom we have close relationships, are famous for saying, “I just want you to be happy.” In reality, what they mean is, “I just want you to do what I want so that I will be happy.” Or, “I want you to be upbeat so I won’t have to deal with your emotional discord.”
Further, some people—let’s be honest, most people, don’t want to be happy. It is programmed in their psyches to dwell in pain and negativity and they resent another person breaking out of the herd. These people consider a happy person threatening because it challenges their perspective of life. If you are happy, then it means that they, too, can be happy and most people don’t want to put forth the effort because happiness takes effort.
People at the lower end of the happiness scale want you to wallow in misery with them. Wayne Dyer explained this well when he joked, “How dare you be happy when I have this hangnail.”
3. The Media
“Is there lead paint in your drinking water? Find out tonight at 10.”
“Is your cat trying to kill you? We’ll have the answer at 11.”
I once had lunch with the newspaper publisher and he told me that running a headline that read, “CRISIS” will outsell a headline stating, “GOOD NEWS!” by ten to one. This goes back to the previous idea that important people have important problems and we all want to feel important. Before we blame the media, let’s realize that we are the ones consuming what they are putting out.
Know that the media has found that we will stay tuned for bad news because we think, somehow, that after exposing the danger (real or imagined) that they will offer us the solution. Sometimes this happens but often it doesn’t. The late night news just leaves us anxious and afraid and we go to sleep with fear in our minds where it simmers in the Crockpot of our psyches. No wonder we wake up with dread.
Media in the form of advertising also impacts our happiness level. Look at any ad and you’ll see smiling, attractive people. The message of such ads are, “buy our product and you’ll be happy—oh, AND good-looking.” And the implication is that if you don’t purchase their product you will be neither happy nor attractive.
4. We don’t decide to be happy
Every happy person I have interviewed considers him or herself to be happy. They have decided that they are happy; they define themselves as happy and, as a result, they are. 99% of people think that getting, achieving or receiving something will make them happy—it won’t. Happiness is a decision we make.
Happiness is a delusion.
But then, so is unhappiness.
You’re being deluded either way. You might as well choose the one that makes you feel good.