The Elusive Feeling of Happiness

By Nicola Albini, J.D., M.A. - This article originally appeared on December 1, 2017 on huffingtonpost.com

Happiness is the thing we desire most.  

The elusive feeling of happiness is what motivates everything we do (or don’t do).  It drives our careers. It’s what we’re really hoping to procure any time we buy something.  It’s why we get married, take vacations and why we hire therapists.  It is at the root of our food choices, our philanthropic decisions, our spiritual paths.  

There is nothing in this world that isn’t related to the desire to be happy.  

And yet we delay our happiness all the time.

Typically, it goes something like this:

I’ll accept my body when I lose five pounds.
I’ll celebrate once we get through the next phase.
I’ll relax just as soon as this contract gets signed.
I’ll forgive them once they really understand where I’m coming from.
I’ll feel safe when there’s X amount of money in my bank account.
I’ll accept myself when I discover my purpose.
I’ll stop feeling lonely once I have a partner.

I’ll be present once I get these three things checked off my list.

Delaying happiness is a way of avoiding the present moment. Ironically, happiness is only accessible when we’re IN the present moment.  It is because we typically spend so little time there that happiness can feel like a mysterious ever-changing mark on the map, rather than a fixed and reliable resting point.

In other words, what brought us happiness yesterday may not today. This is because the actual cause of happiness has little to do with having the thing we want; it is our ability to enjoy having the thing we want that makes us happy.

So, on a practical level, how can we stop delaying happiness?

Make Space for Integration Through Celebration
I have worked with many clients who set goals for themselves only to begin worrying about the next goal the minute they reach the first.  They skip right over celebrating their accomplishments, and quickly move back into the energy they’re most comfortable with, which is striving and worrying.  

During my time running an international shipping business I did something very similar: if we had a record-breaking financial year, I would immediately begin worrying that the following year would not surpass it.  In my relentless pursuit of excellence, I skipped right over celebrating what I had already done.  

This left no room for integration. Integration is important because it allows our entire being to “upgrade” to match our success. Integration raises the ceiling on our tolerance for positive feeling states and allows us to experience longer, more sustained periods of happiness.

Integration happens quickly when we allow ourselves to celebrate our accomplishment and truly relax into the ever-present “now” without fretting about all the forthcoming “nows” in our future.

A sign that integration is unfolding nicely is the ability to easily access gratitude, which is another key ingredient to embracing happiness.

Fluff Up Your Feelings
Let’s face it: if you’re worried or stressed, then you’re delaying happiness.  

The trick to feeling happy is… to feel happy.  Yet sometimes our feeling body gets bogged down with thoughts and negative feelings that keep us stuck in a pattern of delayed happiness.

The good news is that it is impossible to feel happiness-deferring feelings while practicing appreciation and gratitude. Taking time to appreciate -- yourself, your colleagues, your partner, the clean air you’re breathing, the roof over your head, the food in your pantry, the money in your bank account --  actually re-wires the brain for happiness. Gratitude keeps you in present time, and, as we discussed earlier, that is exactly where happiness lives.

Moving your physical body is also a great way to fluff up your feelings. Play a song you love and sing or dance to it.  It is impossible to feel stressed and worried while this is going on.  

Or take a walk and practice taking in the beauty of nature.  Whatever it takes to get off the wheel of difficult feelings is time and energy well spent.

Do It Because It Feels Good
Desire is a wonderful thing… up to a point.  How much of what you do is because it’s moving you toward a goal?  How much of what you do is because you enjoy doing it?

When we are in the energy of desire 100% of the time, then all we get is… more desire!

When we are in the energy of enjoyment, then we open to experiencing more enjoyment – and much more happiness.

If, for example, your fitness routine is all about your appearance but it doesn’t bring you any pleasure, you will likely never truly be satisfied with how you look.

If all of your business decisions are about the bottom line, you will never feel fulfilled in your work.

If you relentlessly pursue healing your body without taking into account your joy, you will never feel the wellness you’re after.

Striving is useful – it is how we get where we want to go. Yet, I promise, the authentic pleasure you allow yourself along the way will take you just as far as your discipline.

Don’t Look Back, That’s Not Where You’re Going
We can delay happiness by worrying about the future, but just as often we delay it by lingering in the past.

There’s a saying: “If you want to change the past, change the future.  If you want to change the future, change the present.”

When we stop dragging the past into our present moment, we are free to create fresh experiences and new ways of being. We are free to be happy with no delays.  

The magic of this is that our present-moment happiness lays tracks for a future that will soon enough become the past.  When you allow yourself to be happy in the present moment, you are literally creating a happy life, past, present and future!

To be clear: there is nothing wrong with working toward a future goal. In fact, this is how we thrive, how we succeed, how we live the life of our dreams.

Yet it is important to remember that the reason we set the goal is because, underneath it all, we think it will make us happy once we’ve achieved it.

Allowing yourself to be happy now is planting seeds for the outcome you’re working toward. It might, in fact, be just as important as any other action step you take toward your dreams.