Why I Abandoned My Pursuit of ‘Happiness’

"Happiness is something I likely won’t be able to permanently achieve. But that’s OK—because I’m content."

For years, we’ve been living in an era defined by happiness. We read books like The Happiness Project and The Universe Has Your Back, and we use planners and mugs that tout inspirational quotes like “you got this” and “one day at a time” as a means of daily motivation.

From my twenties into my early thirties, I bought heavily into the belief that my sadness, anger, misery or anxiety could be squashed by my own mind and its intentions. If I moved fast enough; if I said “yes” enough, if I strived for bigger jobs, more money, better this and new-and-improved that, I would stay one step ahead of my tragically flawed human nature and eventually land into the open arms of opportunity. Of happiness. But it didn’t work, and I shouldn’t be surprised.

Our quest for happiness has led the wellness industry to balloon into a multi-trillion dollar juggernaut, and its flaws are finally being recognized. The wellness industry often relies heavily on shame to ensnare its predominantly female customer base, with fitness clubs and influencers adopting cult lingo to inspire their subscribers to keep going, to never give up. If you want to be happy, you earn it—it’s a one-person fight.

I absolutely used to believe this. (And I apologize to the friends I force-fed my ethos to.) As if fulfilling the prophecy from Mad Men’s Don Draper (“What’s happiness? It’s the feeling you get before you need more happiness!”), I put pressure on reaching my professional and monetary milestones in hopes of finding the promised land in which I could finally be happy. But it never came.

By the start of the pandemic, burnt out, sick and recovering from a car accident I was in a few months before, I still had yet to evade my own distressed mind: I had this gnawing feeling that no matter how badly I wanted to morph back into the hustle-centric woman I used to be, my efforts were completely in vain. So, by that point, hyper-aware of the precariousness of life, and that I’d failed in my previously-described mission, I abandoned the pursuit of happiness altogether. I wanted to stand still long enough to take the shape of myself.

(Related: 9 Signs Toxic Productivity Is Impacting Your Life)

Of course, 16 months isn’t enough time to change and adapt or to unlearn lifelong behaviours or coping skills, but being forced to slow down has helped me find joy in a life that’s smaller. In place of seeking highs that would lift me up and over my problems and baggage, I’ve learned to sit and take real breaths.

Living back at home with my family, I started to see our time together as something valuable, not an interruption in my “precious” workday.  I celebrate the little moments, like winning over two of the neighbourhood cats (I’ve nicknamed them Fran and Beautiful Screaming Lady), and somehow making the perfect pair of cut-offs with jeans I’d shrunk in the dryer. The walks I went on with my dad evolved from a way to burn off my nervous energy to reminders that nature is more than an opportunity to accrue Instagram likes. I learned to put my phone away when I find myself slipping into judgment-mode on social media. And I spend evenings with my Grandpa watching Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy at his retirement home, where I can catch up with residents I’m now obsessed with. (I will be Myrtle’s friend.)

I’ve learned to let go of the illusion that a life of high-highs is sustainable or healthy. And through the inability to return to my toxic work habits or distract myself by buying into self-care mantras, I’ve come to learn that no amount of positive thinking will free me from the realities of being a person. I’m still an anxious person, I still worry and I know that happiness is something I likely won’t be able to permanently achieve. But that’s OK—because I’m content.

My financial situation is still dire, and I worry about the future, but having feelings isn’t a setback. Plus, I’m not alone: more and more people are moving away from big cities and quitting their jobs because the definition of success is finally shifting. And while none of these are cures for the larger systemic problem, I finally understand that instead of my achievements leading to an end game, they make up the foundation I need to rebuild myself. A small life is as valuable as one that’s big and sweeping, and genuine calmness comes from the eventual realization that you are simply allowed to be. For the first time, I feel like I’ve begun to live a life that I can grow in. For the first time, I feel like the ground beneath me isn’t about to collapse if I stand on it for too long.

(Related: What Is Toxic Positivity? Here’s Why It Can Be Negative)

Of course, I’m terrified of what life will look like after Canada fully opens back up. I’m scared that I’ll return to old habits and fall into the false promises that success looks one certain way. But with those fears in mind, I remind myself that happiness shouldn’t be propped up by guilt or anxiety or the threat that in a second, your contentment will slip away. I’m no longer treating my existence as a stage on which to fail.

Between us, sometimes I wish I’d understood sooner that the only way out of a cyclical mind trap is to go slow; that learning never stops, and not to berate myself if I slip up or fall back. But then on good days, I remind myself that perfection isn’t real, and that no one is spared the process of putting ourselves back together. And that makes our post-pandemic world so less scary. Especially since it’s in those moments I remember to stop and look around, letting myself feel content.

Next: This is Languishing—The Mental State Many of Us Are Experiencing Right Now

Originally Published in Best Health Canada