The Dark Little 'Happiness' Secret Nobody Likes To Admit

Once you embrace the paradox of happiness, you get a little closer to it.

Happy woman sitting in a metaphorical mess

Happiness appears on almost every list of life goals, usually right at the top. It’s what we want most for ourselves and our children. “So long as you are happy,” we say to each other. Yet, we don’t always know what we mean by happiness.

We envision happiness as an experience of positive emotion. And that is indeed one aspect of happiness. But happiness comes in a variety of forms, and it isn’t always about jumping for joy and feeling the light.


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Here's the happiness secret nobody likes to admit:

Happiness doesn’t always feel happy.

It can feel downright miserable. It's the paradox of happiness. We have to embrace the full range of our emotional expression, the positive and negative, if we want to live our best and happiest life.

We don’t want to admit it, much less experience it. But it’s important to understand because this dark side sets up the conditions for the good feelings we prize. We simply can’t have an enduring experience of the light of happiness without the dark.


Happiness also requires us to be able to tolerate discomfort.

This is because hedonic happiness, that is, pleasurable emotion, can take us only so far. It’s another type of happiness, that of eudaimonic happiness, that takes us the distance. This is the happiness that comes from using our unique strengths and skills and engaging in tasks that are meaningful.

The ability to tolerate psychological discomfort has emerged as a leading predictor of success in multiple areas, which include relationships, business, marriage, and parenting. According to positive psychologists Todd Kashdan and Robert Biwas-Diener, embracing this wholeness leads to more, not less, happiness, allowing you to become “stronger, wiser, mentally agile, and most important, happier in a more resilient, and therefore, durable way.”

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Hedonic happiness 

Hedonic pleasure is like sugar. It feels good for a brief moment and often leaves us wanting more. On the other hand, eudaimonic happiness (note: "pleasure" is also a good word in place of happiness) is like exercise. It can feel difficult in the moment but leads to longer-term goals that bring a deeper type of happiness – a happiness that comes from satisfaction at a job well done.

We’ve all had the experience of trading a temporary pleasure to achieve a longer-term goal. It’s how we made it through school and why we get up in the mornings. It’s why we decline the dessert or the alcoholic drink when we know we will pay too high a price in the future. This is the process of eudaimonic happiness — trading temporary pleasure for a deeper and more meaningful future experience.



In addition to reducing our chances of achieving longer-term goals, chasing temporary pleasant feelings sets up a “hedonic treadmill” as we quickly adapt and need more. Like a drug addict, this leaves us seeking bigger and better experiences just to maintain our baseline good feelings. It’s a road to nowhere that explains why some of those with the most financial resources find themselves deeply unhappy.


The path to true happiness 

I'm sorry to all of those selling products who insist theirs is the one true way, but there is no single path to happiness.

Just like “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” we know that all play and no work is also not a recipe for success.

The founder of positive psychology, Dr. Martin Seligman, put forth the idea of three visions of a happy life. These are the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life. Ideally, we should aim to include some of each — pleasant emotions and experiences, using our unique strengths and virtues and contributing to the greater good.

Within this framework, you can see how the outwardly grumpy person going about meaningful work that draws on their unique strengths can experience a deep form of inner happiness. Hopefully, they will also stop to feel the positive emotions inherent in their experience, as well as indulge in a few activities that feel good in the shorter term. Regardless, they are also experiencing happiness.


line of different people

Photo: mentatdgt via Shutterstock

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We evolved negative and positive emotions for a reason

Negative emotions are easy to understand as they evolved for protection. Emotions like anxiety and fear warn us of potential danger. Guilt warns us that we’ve done something outside of our value system. Anger warns us that there’s been a boundary violation. Sadness lets us know we have lost something valuable.


The emotions we think of as positive, like joy and gratitude, evolved to help us broaden our outlook, embrace our challenges, and form supportive connections. Positivity opens access to our creativity as well as our willpower. It allows our body to calm down to rest and digest. These are as essential to our well-being as the “negative” emotions.

It's thought that we tend to have a “negativity bias” because those ancestors who didn’t heed their negative emotional messengers got eaten by the lions while those who stayed close to home in fear lived to reproduce. Luckily, some of our ancestors heeded their positive emotional drives and ventured out to form alliances and pursue new possibilities.

In general, positive emotions let us know our needs are being met, whereas negative emotions let us know our needs aren’t being met. The negative emotions can motivate us to avoid pain and danger in the short term, but the positive emotions help us enjoy life and build resources for the long term.




The full range of emotion is vital.

We can’t just sit around feeling happy to have a happy life. Optimism motivates us toward our goals but too much can lead to excessive risk-taking or ignoring dangers. On the other hand, too much pessimism leads to giving up, whereas a smaller dose of negative feelings, like boredom or envy, can lead us to deeper insights.

Bringing your whole self to the table gives you maximum power because every day’s pains, as well as its pleasures, contribute to a life that’s happy in deep and meaningful ways. So, don’t despair when you feel down. Living is a messy business. And it’s right in the middle of this mess of ups and downs where happiness is found.

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Lisa Newman, MAPP is a positive psychology practitioner and certified intuitive eating counselor specializing in helping women end the cycle of yo-yo dieting.