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Why Is Happiness So Hard? 10 Reasons, 10 Solutions

Most of us don't understand happiness. In fact, we go about it in reverse.

Chris Sardegna/
Source: Chris Sardegna/

Most of us get happy all wrong. This is because we were raised to think that life is supposed to make us feel good. We may have been taught to avoid pain like the plague, because negative events cause negative emotions, and negative feelings are not meant to be felt. The result may be that we grow up pain-averse and we crumble at the first signs of stress because our emotional training wheels never came off.

While roadblocks to happiness do exist, the good news is they are largely within our control. Here is a look at the common thieves of happiness and how to change them in order to feel better.

1. Fear

Fearing change is normal. Staying mired in misery is not. Common reasons for it include fear of the unknown, of failure, of what people may say, and of risking our security blanket in the name of safety and predictability.

Fear cripples many a therapy client: Staying in a soul-sucking career because “that’s what my parents did to provide for the family,” or sticking with unhappy relationships because “it’s better than being alone,” and stalling on a creative venture because “what will the naysayers say if l fail?”

It takes courage to step outside of your comfort zone, but your comfort zone is also your danger zone. One of the biggest regrets of the dying is reliving all the what ifs. Topping the list is the fear of being criticized by others. Take a tip from the wife of an ex-president, Eleanor Roosevelt: “You wouldn't worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”

2. Chasing self-esteem

“It has almost become a truism in our culture that we need to have high self-esteem in order to be happy and healthy. But as research is now starting to demonstrate, the need to continually evaluate ourselves positively comes at a high price. The main problem is that having high self-esteem requires feeling special and above average. To be called average is considered an insult in our culture. This need to feel superior results in a process of social comparison in which we continually try to puff ourselves up and put others down.” — Dr. Kristin Neff

The problem is, once our self-esteem slips, as it inevitably will, we start to internalize the negative feelings and we are primed to feel anxious, depressed and unworthy.

What’s the antidote?

Develop self-compassion.

Self-compassion means to see ourselves realistically, and just as fallible as the next guy or gal. The feel-good emotions of self-compassion are highly stable because they are based on our intrinsic self-worth.

3. External rewards

Happiness is an inside job. Sure a shiny new car, sleek digs and a European vacation can make life better, but they are temporary fixes. Sometimes we veer so far outside of our minds in search of happiness that these external pursuits block our path. The best things in life are created and cultivated — good, solid relationships, positive experiences and loving memories. Material goods will not shower us with feel-good emotions and meaning.

4. “When I reach this goal…”

Life doesn’t honor the perfect time. Waiting for the future is to sit with anxiety, while the world passes by. We postpone our happiness until a time in the future when everything is just right. Only that time never comes.

Some believe that happiness must be earned, and suffering now means we can cash in our karmic sunshine tomorrow. The truth is happiness is not mystic or fated. Anxious therapy clients will often self-sabotage when things start to look up because they believe if they take emotional wellness for granted, the Happiness Gods will strike. Preemptive worrying is a waste of time if ever there was one.

When I was a kid I constantly looked forward to milestones: high school graduation, independent living, marriage, travel, parenthood, etc. Then one day in my 20s I woke up and realized I was living “the future.” And despite the milestones, there were always barriers. Once one challenge was overcome, the next was knocking on my front door. And that realization forced me into imperfect reality, otherwise known as the here-and-now. It’s so easy to get caught up in the tomorrow game. And all the while today’s precious moments are passing us by.

5. Negative thoughts

A crucial psychological lesson is learning that our thoughts form our emotions. It’s common to believe that we can’t help our feelings, but this is simply untrue. Negative thoughts can seem automatic because they’ve become ingrained in our thought process.

One of the best ways to combat chronic negative thinking is to visit a therapist. A skilled therapist will help you uncover your thought processes so that these thoughts can be examined and dealt with.

For example, you may have experienced multiple thoughts upon reading, ‘visit a therapist.’ Perhaps you had a negative counseling experience in the past, or your immediate thought was, ‘here we go again, someone telling me I’m crazy, and I need to get fixed,’ or other thoughts which triggered a negative association. If you find yourself reacting to the same people and situations over and over again, your thoughts are likely blocking your way.

The sister to uncovering such thoughts is a therapy technique called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

The quality of our thoughts means everything to happiness.

6. Comparison

Do you ever scroll through Instagram and think, “Wow, if only my life was like so-and-so, then I’d really be happy”?

We are bombarded with reminders that our better self is waiting in the wings. The thing is, we’re viewing edited reality. Case in point: While writing this article I was struggling with motivation. So I went outside and started taking pictures to post on social media. When I checked my self-awareness I had to admit I was more concerned with reaching the number of followers my peers have than with bringing value to my audience. Instead of feeling grateful that I’m able to write for cool sites like the Huffington Post and Psychology Today, I was chasing more readers, more likes, more hearts and more shares. Comparison really is the thief of joy.

7. Living in the past

Few things are sadder than seeing someone stuck in an endless cycle of replaying their glory days. As the saying goes, ‘youth is wasted on the young.’ The thing about the past is we would all go back and change the unsavory parts if we could. Regretting what you did or didn’t do is futile because you were a different person back then. Plus, we are constantly evolving.

Except John from high school who will happily offer you a beer in exchange for listening to him talk about that time he made the game-winning touchdown in the final seconds of the fourth quarter. Or how his life is all screwed up on account of that wretched wife who turned his kids against him and took him to the cleaners during the divorce.

Don’t be that guy.

8. Loose boundaries

Healthy boundaries are the key to happiness. Without a blueprint for who we are, who we are not, and who and what we want in our life, we simply cannot manage time and emotional energy.

For example, let’s say you and your family traveled across town to visit your folks for Sunday dinner. And after dessert Mom doesn’t want you to leave, even though your kids are cranky. When Mom pushes boundaries that negatively affect your family, remain firm, but loving: "I appreciate the time we had today, but as I mentioned before, bedtime is at 8:00 p.m. and we have to get going."

Mom may see boundaries as a challenge, and an invitation to push your buttons. Hold your ground and impose "second level" boundaries, if necessary. For example, leave without engaging in any further conversation, turn off your mobile phone, and don't allow yourself to be guilted into repeated pleas to make an exception because "it's a special occasion."

9. Neglecting gratitude

There's a whole host of reasons why we should make gratitude a daily practice — research has shown that being thankful has positive effects on our well-being.

When we wallow in what we don’t have, we squander our emotional energies. Focusing on our shortcomings rather than our blessings means losing sight of the fact that most things in our lives are pretty good.

Try thinking of three things each day that you’re grateful for or keep a gratitude diary. These small acts take just minutes, yet the difference in outlook and positive emotions can make a big difference.

10. Forgetting about the process

Sometimes we make life harder than necessary. Happiness is not a means to an end, for there is no Destination Happy. Sure we experience joyful moments and blissful memories, but life is about the journey and enjoying the steps along the way. When we let go of our limited view of happiness, we accept that life is full of ebbs and flows where some days are great, others are good, and some are bad. And that’s okay. Cultivating happiness is as much about handling adversity as it is about embracing the beauty in everyday moments.


Would you like to learn more about achieving happiness? If so, click here.

Copyright 2015 Linda Esposito, LCSW