Pursuing happiness vs. catching joy

The relentless pursuit of happiness can backfire, leaving us always looking for more and never feeling fulfilled. Here are 5 ways to find moments of joy, instead.

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Dec 23, 2021 UPDATED
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Though we tend to think of the pursuit of happiness as a positive endeavor, the truth is that chasing down that elusive goal can be anxiety-provoking and lead to feelings of inadequacy, failure, and longing or disappointment. 

Shifting our mindset away from this pursuit and focusing instead on catching joy when it crops up organically, results in a richer and deeper experience of being alive. Joy isn’t a prize that you earn at the end of a treacherous quest. Joy is everywhere, all the time. 

But it can only be experienced in the present moment. Catching joy requires us to learn to be present in our sometimes painful, sometimes stressful, everyday lives. 

3 problems with the pursuit of happiness 

1. Emotions are always changing

There’s a belief that once happiness is found, it will be constant, continuous, and permanent, and that life will be free of pain. We assume that if we make it to the happiness mountaintop, we’ll be safe from tidal waves of grief, betrayal, or disappointment. 

But happiness doesn’t keep us safe. Life is consistently full of ups and downs, and no emotion is permanent. 

2. There’s always more

We assume external things like material possessions and financial status will bring lasting happiness. Then, when we finally attain that thing or make that money, we’re shocked that it doesn’t fill the void.

So we decide it’s the next item or the next income bracket that will solve the question of happiness; we get into a habit of perpetually moving the goalposts farther back, which in turn increases our yearning for more money and more things.

3. The pursuit of happiness is clouded by comparison 

Our consumption of social media and celebrity culture creates an illusion that others are happier than we could ever be. We internalize that illusion and start automatically comparing ourselves to others, increasing our feelings of inadequacy and smothering our self-worth.

monarch butterflies on beach

The road to joy 

When we shift our focus away from this external, future-centered vision—an idea—of happiness and bring our attention to the present moment, something amazing happens: we find ourselves more open to catching in-the-moment joy. 

The pathway to joy asks not, “Am I happy?” but “Am I present?”

Joy is a powerful rush of elation involving or triggered by the people and experiences that make up our everyday lives, a surge of awesomeness imprinting in vivid color in the subconscious. It’s a brief but profound recognition of the best parts of being alive.

So, how do we create space in our lives to feel more of this awesomeness? 

mindfulness quote

The pathway to joy is mindfulness 

In an article for Mindful.org, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as the “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally”. 

For most people, mindfulness is a daily practice or an approach to life that deepens one’s experiences and calms the mind. 

Consider the aching discomfort we can feel when ruminating over our past, or the anxious energy that fills our body when we’re imagining the worst-case scenarios of our future. 

Mindfulness pulls us back to the present and lifts the weight of what we cannot control. 

Mindfulness involves engaging your senses in the here and now. It raises your consciousness to your unique presence in the environment. The moment this happens, space for catching joy opens up inside you.

plant pots

5 ways to catch more joy through mindfulness 

1. Engage your senses

Joy is experienced in the moment, but the moment is made more permanent through engaging your five senses. Drawing your attention to what you’re seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing, and feeling at any given moment, imprints that stay in your memory. Describe the sensations in your mind in real time as you’re experiencing them.

This practice illuminates the joy in your life and gives it roots.

2. Make time for soul-nurturing activities

Soul-nurturing activities are actions that spark your sense of self and make you feel at home and alive. For some it’s early morning journaling, for others it’s walking in the sunshine, dancing, snuggling a loved one, or meditation. 

Ritualize your soul-nurturing activities by practicing them at the same time every day or every week. Rituals become habits that prime the brain for joy.

3. Find calm inside the chaos

Life is often chaotic. For many people, the chaotic moments outnumber the calm ones. Rather than fighting against the chaos and allowing its energy to overtake you, tune in to your energy through a deep, centering breath. Consider there is potential joy to be caught within the chaos.

4. Engage in authentic relationships

Relationships that make us anxious, relationships in which we are trying to please the other or manage their feelings, take us out of the present moment and leave little room for joy.

Relationships in which we feel accepted for who we are and feel safe expressing our authentic voice cultivate joy. 

5. Connect with nature

When we’re outdoors, away from screens, mirrors, and the obligations of work, we’re more able to turn down the volume of our inner critic and tune in to our surroundings. Observing and experiencing the beauty of nature fosters a connectedness to the bigger world, which has a way of calming the mind. This connectedness expands our capacity for joy. 

Perhaps a life well-lived is simply a collection of joyful moments. It is a stacking of memories created by bringing our full self to the moment, paying attention without judgement, and then reaching out and catching that moment like a bubble floating on the breeze. 

The pathway to joy asks not, “Am I happy?” but “Am I present?”

Article originally published Dec 3, 2021. Updated Dec 23, 2021.

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