The Impossibility of Traditional “Happiness” (And How We Must Re-Define It)

Happiness. What a slippery concept.

It’s what we’re all after, right? (At least that’s what I’m told.) But what is it? What do you imagine when you think of happiness?

Perhaps you conjure up notions of a distant beach-side setting, endless relaxation, a gourmet meal, and fine wine flowing like the Thames.

At the very least, if you are invested in traditional notions of happiness, some form of leisure probably comes to mind — some comfortable scenario devoid of all bad feeling.

In this post, I’m going to propose that we must disband ourselves from this ideal of happiness. We must recognize it as a lackluster, mind-dulling destination that cannot truly exist.

Understanding Our False Ideal of Happiness

When we dream of happiness, we dream of a place that is free of suffering — a place without anxiety, guilt, mood swings, and melancholy.

Considering our own lives, we anticipate the day when our worries and mental battles will subside — a day when a golden age of purely positive mental states can ensue, a day when we cease to have any reason to feel sorrow, tension, and pain.

I don’t wish to upset any of you, but this is a mythical place. It is a place our society would like us to believe exists — a pot of gold at the end of the proverbial rainbow that we reach when we’ve accumulated enough wealth and security.

However, no amount of comfortable luxury or perceived security will ever result in the realization of this ideal. Why? Because of a law of life that can be summed up in one word: flux.

Flux — meaning transience or change — is all life knows. Our moods, our assets, our liabilities, our relationships, and all other conditions of our existence will never remain constant, despite what our cultural ideal would have us believe.

Death, disaster, disease, unforeseen misfortune, conflict, heartbreak, and the anxieties of day-to-day life will always persist and disrupt what we often think of as happiness or peace.

And you know what? This is a good thing. What we imagine to be happiness is a dreadfully boring proposition. Endless calm or joy or brightness of mind may sound like heaven-on-earth, but we would soon grow accustomed to this state and lose our sense of it being something extraordinary.

We need contrasting emotions to feel their poignancy.

It’s okay that this traditional notion of happiness is boring and mythical, because a true and deeper state of being can still be found. I wish to argue that our greatest satisfaction as humans lies not in constancy, but in transformation.

Growth. Higher knowledge. The attainment of superior states of being. Whatever you want to call it, we can find unparalleled riches and fulfillment by becoming something different than what we were previously.

And though it may seem counter-intuitive, the route to this satisfaction is through discomfort. It is the tumultuous, rocky, unsexy, often infuriating, and crushing periods of life that reveal to us our true worth.

So am I saying happiness doesn’t exist? Well no, but I am suggesting that we would be wise to re-formulate our popular notion of what it looks like.

Re-formulating Happiness

If the flux of life will always prevent our ideal of perpetual positive mental states, what might happiness look like?

If our greatest satisfaction can be discovered only through times of suffering, is there room for happiness?

I think yes, there is. But it’s a bizarre sort of happiness, a kind that doesn’t at first sound very promising.

True happiness lies in being able to accept, embrace, and even laugh at our pain.

Our aim should be to understand our pain as a necessary result of the flux of life and an essential precursor to our growth — to the manifestation of superior degrees of consciousness.

We can be thankful for our suffering. We must come to see it as our ally, the driving force of our ability to experience new perspectives, deeper compassion, and unknown reserves of strength and resilience that reside within us.

Only then can we laugh at our pains. Only then can we play with the paradox of them — that what seems to be the obvious reaction to pain (the desire to eliminate it) is contrary to happiness.

We shouldn’t resist our pain. We should be thankful that it exists to mold us into more than we knew we could become. That isn’t to say that some people don’t experience undeserved and sickening degrees of pain — they do, and those of us who are more fortunate should help them.

The point is to realize that the pain will not cease. You can resist and resent it and grow bitter. Or you can dance with it, channel the energies it provokes from you, and grow stronger.

This should be our aim — to embrace and bask in the flux of life. To see our pain and smile at a friend in disguise.

When we can do this, we can weather the mightiest storm. Many of our daily sufferings become infinitely more bearable. We can heave a sigh of relief. Happiness was there all along. It was just a matter of perspective, of wisdom.

Ways to Accept and Embrace Pain

1. Wisdom of Transience One comforting thought for me in the midst of my most profound sufferings — heartbreak, death of loved ones, deep depression, maddening anxiety — has been the old adage that “this too shall pass”. Transience will always bring new pains, but it will also always bring new beginnings, reconciliation, and new hope. You must have faith in this concept and remember it on your darkest days.

2. Absurdity of the Causes Often, our pains are irrational. We fret unnecessarily about whether someone likes us, whether we can talk in front of people, whether we can complete all of our tasks. Many of these day-to-day pains are trivial. That doesn’t mean our subjective negative feelings of them are not very real, but we can diminish those feelings by concentrating on being rational. Focus intentionally on the foolish nature of your fear, anger, or sadness. Laugh at the stupidity and insignificance of the causes.

3. Worst Case Scenario Many of our pains result from our imagining results different from those for which we hope. We tend to love control. But, I find it useful to consider the worst thing that could happen — people laugh at you, you get a bad grade, you get fired, someone stops talking to you? Most of the time, the worst case scenario would not be an earth-shattering tragedy. Recognize this often and proceed with the knowledge that few situations are life-or-death.

4. Remove Expectation — In Buddhist philosophy, expectation is at the root of all suffering. Anytime we want the world to be a certain way, we’re resisting accepting life as it is. Pain arises because we know that life may not unfold according to our hopes, but we still cling to our expectation. Realize that it is a fool’s game to possess all sorts of expectations. The wise man understands that he can but direct his own energy and effort, then focus on embracing whatever the outcome may be. Stop resisting.

5. Breathe — Draw a long, deep breath into the depths of your lungs. Focus on the air rushing in. Hold it there for a moment. Release it, listen as it flows out. Deep breathing is a wonderful calming exercise. Breathe more often, close your eyes, and relax. Everything is going to be okay.

6. Empathize Pain is something that has been common to the human experience since the time of our early ancestors. Suffering is a common thread running through all of us. The next time you’re feeling poorly, remember that countless other people have felt the exact same. Remember that millions of others are likely experiencing pain that is much worse than your own. Pain is an opportunity to develop compassion. Through our own trials, we learn to love others. No one lives out this life without pain — we must all be warriors.

7. Take Action The worst thing to do when in pain is  to sit still and wallow in the bad feeling. Although it may be difficult, force yourself to get up and do something positive. Taking action has the power to completely transform a single day and an entire lifetime. (For ideas about types of actions to take, check out my post — “18 Mind-Brightening Actions to Combat Dreary Moods“)

8. Appreciate — Appreciation is an immensely powerful thing. Even in our darkest times, taking a step back to count our blessings can have wonderful restorative effects. I’ve written previously about how to fully harness the power of appreciation here.

One Final Suggestion

I’ve nearly concluded my remarks on happiness, but I have one final thing to tell you:

Stop asking, “Am I happy?”.

Many others have given this same advice before me, but I think it’s worth sharing here. The worst thing you can do to be content in life is to constantly ask yourself whether or not you are.

You should but focus your energies on doing passionate work and accepting whatever comes your way. Invest yourself into the present moment and love as much as possible. Do some epic and exciting shit from time to time and learn not to take it all so seriously.

These things are much easier to say than to do, but if we work at them, we do get better. And you know what? That’s an unfathomable blessing. So let’s do the work, and let’s spread the joy around. One life; one chance to make it count. I believe in us.

“Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke

P.S. If this post taught you something or helped you to think about something in a new and useful way, show your support by “liking” Refine The Mind on Facebook here. I really appreciate it.

If this essay resonated, you'll enjoy my Dead Honest Newsletter, my list of Cage-Melting Books, and following me on on Facebook and Instagram.

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About Jordan Bates

Jordan Bates is a Lover of God, healer, mentor of leaders, writer, and music maker. The best way to keep up with his work is to join nearly 7,000 people who read his Substack newsletter.

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10 years ago

I think happiness is a useful term for something that I have long since decided is not the most important thing in my life. I agree that suffering has its place, but I think most of your recommendations under “Ways to accept and embrace pain” would be better categorized as “Ways to make the pain seem not as bad”. 1) It won’t last forever 2) It’s stupid to feel this way 3) It’s really not as bad as I think 4) I don’t really want what I didn’t get anyway 5) Pay attention to your body and not the pain… Read more »

Jordan Bates
10 years ago
Reply to  coalczar


Thanks for the comment. I guess I don’t see a huge distinction here. If you’re becoming better at recognizing that pain isn’t insurmountable, that you can deal with it, and even that it’s a necessary part of life, yes, you’re coping with it, but you’re also moving to a place where you can accept it.

Best to you.

10 years ago
Reply to  Jordan Bates

Imagine you met me and were having a hard time accepting and embracing me as a person. Would these be the steps you would take to really accept and embrace me? I think they would be the steps you would take to endure me, but my experience of being endured and that of being accepted and embraced is quite different.

Jordan Bates
10 years ago
Reply to  coalczar

Accepting a person is a different thing than accepting that mental duress and difficulties are inevitable, so I don’t think the two can be compared. I understand your point, really. Some of these items would probably better be labeled coping mechanisms, but several of them speak directly to how to accept your situation. Is this matter really of consequence anyway?

10 years ago
Reply to  Jordan Bates

Is there a difference between accepting and embracing the fact that you are experiencing pain and accepting and embracing the pain itself? I think so. Is it of consequence? If you want to change your orientation to pain, I believe so. You say “The worst thing to do when in pain is to sit still and wallow in the bad feeling.” While the usefulness of basking in pain is another debate, the quote illustrates a major point that I see missing from your article: Feel your pain. Be present with your pain. Give your pain your attention. Pain seems nothing… Read more »

Jordan Bates
10 years ago
Reply to  coalczar

Now I feel we’re getting somewhere. Your point about my idea of not “wallowing in the pain” is spot-on. My view on this has changed, as I wrote this article over a year ago. I still don’t think it’s good to wallow (roll in it, feel guilty about it), but I agree that being present with pain often reveals it’s deeper causes or even helps it to dissolve. I agree that pain is often a messenger. That doesn’t mean that the causes aren’t absurd or irrational (emotions and rationality are two very different things), but it could be telling us… Read more »

10 years ago
Reply to  Jordan Bates

You’re welcome. I’m glad you gave me the chance to better explain why what I was trying to say in my first post mattered. I think I just got frustrated because the first part of your article resonated with me and I thought you were going where I wanted you to go with pain and you went somewhere a bit different. Even if the motivation to begin the conversation didn’t start with the “purest” of intentions, I do like to challenge people to see things in a new way, although from your last post it sounds like you may have… Read more »

Jordan Bates
10 years ago
Reply to  coalczar

Understandable. And yes, I too love to challenge the way people think about the world.

You haven’t come off as pompous. I’m glad we could see from the other’s perspective as well. Best to you.

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