6 Lessons In How To Be Happy (When Being Happy Is Really, Really Hard For You)

You can be happy, even when it feels far away.

Woman finding her happiness, even though being happy in difficult for her LOOK | Canva

Human beings are never satisfied with what we have, and we always look to the future to get more. "If only I’d win the lottery, I’d be happy," we say. Turns out, not so much. A study published in 1978 observed lottery winners and also victims of accidental paralysis. Of course, at first, the winners were overjoyed, and the victims were suffering. But after a time, the winners’ day-to-day life was a little less happy than before the event (what other pleasure can compare to that one big thrill?), and the victims reported being somewhat happier than before (possibly gratitude for having survived?).


We seem to have a "set point" in our overall state of happiness. There may be spikes of excitement and pleasure (getting that big promotion, winning the game…) but then we rather quickly settle back into that familiar place. If that place is depressive, are you stuck there?  There are ways to shift that set point in your happiness. They all require some effort, some decision-making, and a fair amount of practice, but I think they’re well worth the investment. Here are some ways to change your outlook on things.

Here are 6 lessons on how to be happy, even when being happy is hard for you:

1. Learn how to handle disappointment

No one likes to be disappointed. Many people practice the "don’t get your hopes up" way of trying to avoid it. When you don’t let yourself imagine a greater future, though, you are robbing yourself of one of our great pleasures. A 2010 study demonstrated that the planning of a vacation was the most enjoyable part of it. No vacation can fulfill all the hopes we put into it. We’re bound to be disappointed, at least a little. And can you bear to be disappointed? Yes. Remember that it’s only a feeling and that feelings pass. In the case of the vacation, it’s likely the disappointments are small. If you can stand life being imperfect, and stand having a feeling, you can enjoy your fantasies.


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2. Address what scares you

Is there something you keep meaning to do but hesitate? Either because you are anxious about doing it, or about the outcome. Put on your armor and DO it. You’ll then have a chance to enjoy a sense of accomplishment and a rise in self-confidence. If that’s not happiness, what is? So maybe it doesn’t work out as you’d wished … You at least know that you had the bravery to face it. Someone who is both brave and self-confident feels pretty good about herself.

@oliviarosethomas Doing things that scare you is the key for growth. Everything that you are proud of is always on the other side of fear. #createyourownreality #personaldevelopment #shadowwork #manifesting #spirituality #subconsciousbeliefs #frequency ♬ original sound - Olivia | Mindset & Wellness

3. Cultivate relationships — in person

Make a point of spending quality time with friends and loved ones. This is particularly appropriate in these days of instant messaging. It’s vital to remember that having a conversation by text is not the same as looking someone in the eyes and feeling their presence. Our right brains — that part of the brain that’s in charge of connection and nurturing feelings — are lonely. And no amount of left-brain work (that’s the part that loves language and math — and instant messaging) — helps.


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4. Find meaning in the struggle

There's happiness, and then there’s Happiness. I’m talking about a single experience of pleasure compared to an ongoing state of positive being. For a "happy life," most of us require a sense of worth, a sense that comes with focusing on something meaningful. This kind of Happiness often requires us to tolerate "un-pleasure," in the form of effort and struggle.

Learning a skill well enough to experience a "flow" state is a good example. We’re talking long hours of focus and practice (and probably giving up other pleasant experiences) to develop that skill. If you’re among those lucky people who love their work, you’ll know what I mean. Putting your all into something you value makes life feel worth living.

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5. Make the most of today

There’s a rather coarse saying, "A person who has one foot in the future and one in the past is peeing on the present." But this saying has a point: What is going on right now? Rather than worrying about your next appointment as you walk down the street, pick your head up and look around you. Sniff the air (even if it’s not great), hear the sounds (birdsong is lovely, car horns not so much), and look at your surroundings.

Even when those not-so-pleasant things are true, noticing — in and of itself, without trying to fight your reactions — puts you in touch with that lonely part of yourself. Noticing your reactions can make you feel "full of yourself," in a wonderful way. When you do notice something wonderful (that rack of Christmas trees in December — they smell heavenly! Or, look! A rainbow!), savor it. Put it in a special place in your memory.

6. Acceptance of what's happening

Most of us would prefer to have only pleasant feelings, but we don’t get that choice. The most common way we try to control "bad" feelings is to suppress them and pretend they don’t exist. But fighting a feeling just keeps it around longer, and often makes it stronger. Our emotions give us information about our particular reality, and we blind ourselves to them at great risk. Emotions, by themselves, take at most 90 seconds to arise, arouse, and pass. It’s what we do with them that makes them stick.


Acting out brings them into physical reality. Forming resentments can lead to stomach ills. Explanations can lock the feelings into a narrative. And then you are stuck with them. Thanks in part to our Declaration of Independence, we are a culture that believes happiness is a goal to pursue. Yet those people who focus on wanting to be happy, paradoxically, get stuck with just the feelings they don’t want to have. Happiness is a by-product of decisions that keep us connected, help us gain and keep our self-respect, accomplish meaningful things, and accept reality. We won’t be happy all the time, but that’s just life. 

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Cheryl Gerson is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and Board Certified Diplomate, in private practice in New York City