I Stopped Trying to Be Happy—and It Made All the Difference

When there's pressure to feel happy all the time, can you really be happy? One woman gave up trying and stumbled on true contentment.

I have a bad habit, and it has taken over my downtime. I do it in between carpools. While I wait for the pasta water to boil. As I fold my family’s laundry—sometimes even while I brush my teeth. I mindlessly, effortlessly scroll through Instagram. Of course, I have many busy, productive and attentive hours when I am not on social media, but it happens to be that during the most mundane moments of my existence, I bombard my brain with images of other people trying to be happy.

I’m not naive enough to be tricked into thinking their frame-worthy happiness is always genuine. I know it’s an illusion, at least in part. Still, I can’t help but feel the pressure to learn how to be happy too. And not just happy but—if the images have taught me anything—happier than most. To be the happiest.

As I scroll, I read captions packed with happiness quotes or lyrics from happy songs. I see smiling friends at dinner, couples kissing, kids pink-cheeked from the snow or sun. They are happy to be at the best restaurant in town. Happy to be in the most perfect relationship, and happy to be on an exotic vacation (naturally, in one of the happiest countries in the world).

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The business of trying to be happy

It turns out, the quest for happiness is not unlike the quest for youth. Explorers of both often have something to sell you. There are people hawking products and potions, exercises and diets, all of which promise to do the trick: Learn how to meditate. Focus on positive thinking. Eliminate sugar. Walk 10,000 steps a day. Connect with nature. Eat mood-boosting foods. Take the right vitamins and supplements.

And look, these are smart, science-backed ideas if you’re trying to be happy. But focusing on every single one of them could have the opposite effect. When we bombard our brains with dozens of different ways to achieve happiness, it can seem like a chore instead of the blissful endgame we’re promised. In fact, the quest for happiness can be downright joyless!

Besides, these happiness hacks aren’t for everyone. I’ve tried some meditation apps, and they only succeed in stressing me out—some guy’s slow, low voice telling me to relax? My heart starts racing just thinking about it.

Eliminate sugar? When I was little, I used to jump onto the counter, reach high onto the shelf and sneak spoonfuls from the sugar bowl. Now that I’m an adult, you’ll find sour gummies and Red Vines stashed in the armrest of my car.

As for those 10,000 steps a day? Well, that’s easy. I walk up the stairs to make the beds. Down the stairs to unload the dishwasher. Around the block to walk the dog. By the end of the day, the exercise circle on my Apple Watch is complete. But am I?

Measuring happiness

Rd Stop Trying To Be Happy Original 3 Courtesy Sara Stillman Berger Jveditcourtesy Sara Stillman Berger

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy!

My family and I are fortunate enough to go on exotic trips, taking photos in front of volcanoes from Japan to Costa Rica and smiling atop snow-capped mountains, our ski poles outstretched. We go to the hottest restaurants. We attend parties in our community. I post kissing photos too!

But am I the happiest? Am I as happy as you are in your Instagram photos?

I was happy the other day when I found wayward chewy SweeTarts at the bottom of my carry-on luggage. I was craving candy, and there it was: lintless, dustless and in remarkable condition considering it made the harrowing trip from New York City to San Francisco and back. Hiding in the dark, unkempt corner of my bag, it was the perfect discovery at the perfect time.

A sly smile. A moment of joy. Chew, chew, swallow—gone. It was so fleeting, I didn’t even have time to post about it. Eternal happiness can be hard to achieve, am I right?

Happy with contentment

Rd Stop Trying To Be Happy Original Courtesy Sara Stillman Berger Jveditcourtesy Sara Stillman Berger

Happiness is a series of peaks and valleys, and if I’m always chasing it, I’ll never get it in my grasp. The vacation ends (and laundry begins). That kiss can’t last forever. The candy disappears. The things that spark happiness at home, at work—anywhere, really—are fleeting.

With happiness, it seems that there is always the search for more or for better: the perfect shot at the best angle, or just one more “like.” For me, that doesn’t seem sustainable.

Contentment is different. It’s a feeling within ourselves that no one can take away, writes Daniel Cordero, PhD, founder and CEO of the Contentment Foundation, in the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine. It’s listening to my sixth- and eighth-grader bicker at the dinner table and looking past their arguing to recognize that we are fortunate to all be together.

I see contentment as a consistent feeling. And I crave consistency, maybe even more than sugar. So instead of always trying to be happy, I’ve decided that I’m happiest with feeling content.

I realized this as I was lying in bed a few nights ago. To my right, my husband snuggled close to me, exhausted from a whirlwind business trip to London. The sheets were cool, but his body was warm. To my left, my golden retriever stretched out against the curve of my body, her back flush against mine.

Scrunched in the middle, I was even more than happy. I was content. I settled in, aware that no photo could document this feeling, no sun-soaked vacation could warm my insides this much and no daily step count would lead me to this destination. I smiled. I was the happiest.


Sara Stillman Berger
Sara is a lifestyle writer who has been published in the Washington Post, Women’s Health, Parents, Oprah and Real Simple, in addition to Reader's Digest and many other publications. She lives in New York, where she hides her favorite candy from her husband, two kids and even her golden retriever. The fish never asks for anything.