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Forget Achieving Happiness: Cultivate Moments of Joy    

Forget Achieving Happiness: Cultivate Moments of Joy

Art by FISK

By Jessica Schiffer

Happiness is an American obsession, but the constant pursuit of that feeling isn’t always as rewarding as it's made out to be. Usually framed as a place of continuous positivity and contentment, our culture has grown so obsessed with reaching this near-mythical place that we teach courses on how to get there at universities and sell an endless stream of self-help books on the topic. 

Despite all this, we’re not that happy: America consistently ranks outside the top 10 on the United Nations annual World Happiness Report, coming in with it’s best score in years in 2021 at 14th place (Finland and Iceland lead the way). 

That not-so-hot reality begs the question of whether happiness is really worth pursuing at all. Often tied to material things and big, one-off life events, constantly looking for happiness can add unnecessary pressure to our lives that is difficult to resolve. We put stake in major career shifts, relationship milestones, or financial gains and forget to celebrate the smaller but equally rewarding moments in life, like a deep conversation with a friend or an unforgettable meal. 

In popular psychology, happiness can also be framed problematically as nothing more than a mindset, so that if you’re not feeling happy it’s essentially all on you, placing blame on people regardless of their circumstances. Our fixation on being happy has also led to widespread discomfort and shame around negative feelings, driving us to avoid the lows that are a vital part of life and which, when left unexplored, tend to simmer and get worse. As a result, our efforts to seek out happiness above all else can leave us feeling burnt out and disappointed in ourselves.

Luckily, there’s a better option that won’t leave you constantly feeling unsatisfied: seeking out moments of joy in your life, which happen more organically and can be found more often. In place of the flashier life events that happiness is so often tied to, joy stems from the small wins, the brief moments, and the minor details. Experiencing it requires a deep appreciation for the day-to-day of our lives and a willingness to be moved by things that might seem minor on paper, like bonding with your siblings or the way you feel after an exhilarating workout. 

Unlike with happiness, there’s less pressure surrounding the pursuit of joy, because it’s supposed to be ephemeral and fleeting. We’re under no obligation to maintain the feeling forever, and experiencing opposite emotions (such as sadness or boredom) only serves to heighten the joyful moments when they happen. There’s no “perfect” place of joy for us to reach, it’s meant to come and go, shifting with the tides of our lives. 

Even though joy is technically all around you, depending on how you look at things, training yourself to see it can take a little work after years of chasing after the big moments we’ve been told will bring us happiness. Our next toolkit, out on Friday, will outline three steps you can take to shift your perspective towards cultivating joy instead. In the meantime, let us know in the comments what is making you feel joyful right now. 

Keep the conversation going by commenting on this story below. You can also connect with us about whatever’s on your mind by texting The Local Optimist Hotline at 310.299.9414.