Learning points: The pursuit of happiness

Happiness. One simple word, yet an infinitude of meaning. The pursuit of which is a relatively modern phenomenon. It is indescribable. And yet, its absence can drive us to despair, writes Richard Hogan.

In my clinical experience the inability to find it causes much mental dysphoria. Often, when I ask clients what the word means for them they find it difficult to articulate. 

In modern terms happiness is something that we feel we must have, or at the very least that if we don’t have it there is something wrong with us. It is elusive. And it torments us. 

Especially when we see our neighbour moving with such ease through life. I get asked a lot in my work, what is the secret to happiness. 

And of course, I don’t believe there is one answer to such a question, because as I said, everyone’s understanding of it is unique to them. 

And ultimately the notion that we must always be in a state of perpetual happiness is as absurd as it would be exhausting. 

But I do believe there are a few universal elements that will help you to be more satisfied in life, which will at times allow you to feel happy.

3 Steps to achieving happiness:

Surround yourself with real friends

We all accumulate friends over the course of our lives. Look around you. Which ones are good for you? Ask yourself this question: what friend do I not want to tell my good news to because I know they will take from it? 

We all know this kind of friend, the one that never celebrates when you achieve something, the one that is waiting to better your story when you’ve finished telling your group of friends something that happened to you.

Sure, they may be great when you’re down, but what does that say about the nature of your friendship? They cannot celebrate your success but they are right there when you are struggling. 

You know this friend, and it might be a friendship born out of convenience, they might be available more than your other friends – well, I’d suggest re-evaluating that friendship and moving on. They are not good for you and they do not want the best for you. The truth is you will not miss them because they did not make you happy!

Eat a peach

In T.S Eliot’s famous poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ the voice in the poem is constantly asking itself; ‘do I dare, do I dare disturb the universe?’ One of the greatest barriers to our happiness is regularity. 

As adults we all get caught in routine, this can stymie our sense of self as we predictably go about our daily activity. Of course, we must be responsible for the relationships we are in and the children we have brought into the world but that does not mean we cannot at times be spontaneous and break from the norm. 

In T. S Eliot’s poem, Prufrock wonders what the future will be like and he imagines himself being daring enough to ‘walk upon the beach’ and he sarcastically ponders whether or not he will be heroic enough to ‘eat a peach’.

What Eliot is elucidating here is how our negative concept of self in the present impacts adversely on our future perception of self. But these selves are not concrete. 

We can, at times, be spontaneous. So, disturb the universe. All the evidence would suggest we are alone here in this galaxy and this, more than likely will be the only life you know, so eat a peach - it is good for you and it will aid you in that elusive pursuit of happiness.

To thine own self be true

In my experience, sadness or a depressive episode arrives after we do something that is strikingly incongruent to how we want to be in the world. We all have an image of what we want to be and conversely who we don’t want to be. 

Never betray that. Know your triggers. I often have conversations with men who are desperately suffering with guilt and shame after an affair. And I often hear the same conversation. If we overlook the outcome before we set off on a particular trajectory we are prisoners to its consequences. 

But if we analyse the projected outcome we can often find the true motives behind the action. An affair generally ends with the dissolution of the family unit, which can be a chaotic experience for everyone. The sadness that I have witnessed in the therapeutic space over such behaviour is tangible.

Of course, not all affairs are motivated by this outcome but we should always analyse the outcome of our behaviour. Will this behaviour make me happy or sad in the long run? Often in our pursuit of a momentary present gain we betray our future selves, which has devastating ramifications for our psyche. Being true to yourself, and being who you say you are will make you happy.

The pursuit of happiness can be a futile exercise, especially when you don’t exactly know what it is you are striving for. 

But if you surround yourself with good friends and celebrate your spontaneity and ability to be creative as a human, and if you resolve never to cheat on your self and be who you say you are, well then you have the recipe for true contentment, which I think, is what we mean when we say the word: happiness.


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