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The Happiness Trap
Lots of clients come into our offices stating that they want to be happier. Of course, this is a goal that we support. Happiness is ingrained into our very consciousness, and is even part of the basis on which our national identity is founded (Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness!). But recently I’ve been struck by the extent to which happiness — or the perceived lack of it — seems to pervade my clients’ awareness, and how much their standards and expectations around happiness might be getting in their own way. Let me explain.
Picture yourself moving through a typical weekday. You’ve likely got a routine and a schedule to follow, most likely involving caring for and/or commitments to other people. Your alarm clock probably goes off too early, you may battle with traffic or crowds on public transportation, an email inbox that you can never seem to get under control, and other various annoyances throughout the day. When you arrive home at the end of the day, I bet you feel spent, sometimes overwhelmed, and leery of the tasks that await your attention and compete for your time. Not much from this list is a source of happiness.
Now go back over that list in your head and find the good. I promise: it’s there. That alarm clock wakes you in a warm and comfortable bed in your safe and comfortable home. Those “other people” that you care for are probably comprised largely of your loved ones; a partner, aging parent, and children who enrich and give meaning to your life (even if they also challenge you daily). While you battle your way to your workplace, you’re probably sitting in a reliable vehicle, listening to your favorite news or music station, perhaps sipping coffee or reading a good book on the metro. You come home to others who are eager for your attention, because it has (and you have) value to them. The list of tasks that awaits you helps you organize yourself to succeed in the many ways you’ve chosen to invest time and energy in your life.
Look, I get it. The day-to-day can be a drag, and when it’s monotonous the drag can feel especially heavy. It’s easy to forget about the ways we’ve built joy and contentment into our lives, unless we get intentional about focusing on and fostering it. And I think for many of us, in this modern age of connectivity and social media, we suffer greatly from toxic comparison. Scrolling through our Facebook or Instagram feeds, we see our family, friends, and acquaintances sharing proudly about the highest highlights of their lives. And we forget, in those moments, that those same people also have routines and responsibilities and drag. We compare the worst, hardest parts of our own day-to-day with the best, most colorful pieces of their highlight reel. And something in the back of our head says, “They seem happy. And that’s not how I feel right now. And that’s a problem.” And for some of us, that can be the beginning of a slide down a slippery slope with lots of scary stuff at the bottom — lack of confidence, questioning our relationships, symptoms of depression and anxiety, and thoughts that focus our attention on what our lives should look like rather than focusing on finding joy and contentment in what we already have.
Do you remember the movie “Inside Out?” It’s a Disney/Pixar film that came out about 4 years ago. It’s the imagined operations of the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley, and how her primary emotions — Disgust, Anger, Fear, Sadness, and Joy — work together to create her personality and influence her thinking and decision-making. There are many, many things that I love about that film, but my favorite piece is its message about how the emotions of Joy and Sadness work in concert and, truly, make each other better. At the beginning of the film, all of Riley’s memories and experiences are one-dimensional. Each memory is either one of anger, or fear, or sadness, etc. By the end of the movie, we come to understand that experiences and memories can be comprised of more than one feeling. Joy is amplified in its relationship with Sadness; we can’t truly experience one without understanding its existence relative to the other.
Here’s the other piece that I think is important: patience. It’s not something that most of us are good at these days. Society, full of its modern conveniences, has taught us that we shouldn’t have to wait for what we want. Need a ride? Uber will be here in 2 minutes. Want sushi for dinner? Delivery from your favorite place in half and hour. Curious about the news or want to read up on something that’s piqued your interest? Google can give you 10.3 million search results in 1.6 seconds. All of that makes life easier, sure. But I think it’s cost us something real in the way of perspective. Not everything that makes us “happy” is readily accessible and effortlessly obtained. Forgetting that, and letting ourselves get caught up in feelings of disappointment or loss based on unrealistic expectations, is what I’m referring to as The Happiness Trap.
Now take this idea and apply it to your relationship with your partner. Below I’ve listed some relationship beliefs based on unrealistic expectations, along with some more realistic perspectives for each. See if you identify with any of these:
  • Happiness Trap: If two people are really supposed to be together, their relationship should be easy. Having to work hard in a relationship is a sign of incompatibility. When this happens, I am unhappy.
    • Or: Relationships, by their very nature, require effort. Working hard at a relationship is a worthwhile endeavor and an effective way to create connection and fulfillment. This work makes me feel content.
  • Happiness Trap: My partner and I have been together for years now; I shouldn’t have to ask for what I want — they should know that by now. If my partner isn’t meeting my needs, it’s because they don’t care enough to put forth the effort. When this happens, I am unhappy.
    • Or: The best way to get what you want and need from a partner is to ask for it, clearly and kindly. You will need to do this forever. Moments when your partner meets an unspoken need are fantastic and should be enjoyed when they occur, but this should not be your expectation. Ask for what you want and give your partner an opportunity to come through for you; also, do your best to listen for and meet your partners needs whenever possible. When done well, this reciprocity will result in fulfillment, even if every moment is not characterized by happiness.
  • Happiness Trap: My partner and I have different preferences for balancing time together and apart. One of us is overwhelmed by the other’s desire to be together so much, and the other is hurt by the first one’s need for space. This creates constant tension and bad feelings between us, and neither of us feel heard or respected with regard to our needs. When this happens, I am unhappy.
    • Or: It is normal for two people in a relationship to have different preferences for balancing time together and apart. We can see the value in both, and are wiling to be flexible and collaborative in constructing a way of managing our time in which both partner’s needs are prioritized. I am willing to learn not to take it personally when my partner’s individual needs are different from my own, and understand that this is not a sign of incompatibility. I find joy and contentment in both individual and together time with my partner, as well as from other relationships in my life.


Do you see where I’m going? Not every moment is going to be happy. Lots of our time and mental bandwidth are occupied by real effort in nurturing the relationships and structure that we’ve chosen in life, and our effort is the single biggest predictor of whether or not those are a source of contentment and joy. We make a choice to be dragged down by that effort, or to be enriched by it. We decide which perspective colors our experience.



So what’s my challenge for you? Change your focus. Instead of making it your goal to be happy all (or most) of the time, can you focus on finding contentment? Contentment is more complex than happiness, but it’s also more profound and lasting. Contentment includes some happiness, but it also includes overcoming struggles, finding meaning, working hard for things you value, succeeding in your chosen and assigned roles, and working through difficult emotions like sadness and fear. It’s fully immersing yourself in the richness and complexity of life. It allows you to feel good, even in moments when you’re not happy. And maybe, it’s a way out of the Happiness Trap.

Lindsey Hoskins, PhD, LCMFT, provides couple, family, and individual therapy in both our downtown Bethesda, MD and Sterling, VA offices. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with Lindsey.