The Totally Odd, Utterly Counterintuitive Way To Finally Be Happy

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woman smiling in the grass with flowers around her

Do you find yourself avoiding experiences that could bring struggle or pain? Or battling negative thoughts and feelings?

People tend to focus disproportionately on the negative, particularly in challenging times.

The idea that negative thoughts are bad is popular in the self-help world. There's a lot of evidence that your thoughts affect your well-being.

But are struggles and negativity always bad?

Research suggests that trying to make ourselves happy can be counter-productive and that some kinds of struggle and pain are part of a fulfilled and healthy life.

So what is the secret to building a wonderful, fulfilling life? 

Stop trying to be happy. 

Hear me out — I promise, it will make sense once you understand it (and the science behind it)!

RELATED: It's OK To Be Happy — Even When Other People Aren't

If you want to be happy, stop chasing happiness and allow yourself to feel pain and heartbreak. 

The science behind this truly counterintuitive theory

You might think that the key to a happy life is simply trying to be happy in each moment.

However, in his book, "The Sweet Spot", Paul Bloom suggests that it’s not that simple.

It seems that the more importance you place on seeking happiness, the more likely you are to be lonely and depressed. Indeed, researchers have found trying to make yourself happy appears to reduce your happiness.

Current science posits that there are some forms of discomfort — like 'cold plunges" that are shown to actually boost people's happiness, health and sense of overall well-being.

Therapies like these are shown to help the brain produce more "happiness" chemicals. Anna Lembke, a Stanford professor and psychiatrist explains that she often uses "painful" treatments like these to help treat addicted patients in recovery,

"The body responds to cold water by up-regulating feel-good molecules like dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine, as a way to compensate,” she told The Washington Post.

Focusing on how happy you are (or not) gets in the way.

You're chasing happiness in the wrong ways. Many people get stuck in the "I’ll be happy when …" trap, pursuing external goals that you believe will bring you happiness and joy.

But when you strive for wealth, that promotion, the perfect body, material possessions — with the belief that you need these things to be happy — you wind up less happy, less fulfilled, and more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, or mental illness.

There’s more to a good life than happiness.

Many would say they just want a happy life. A Google search on "how to be happy" produces close to 5 billion hits. Yet, this doesn’t stack up against how you choose to live.

Take a moment now and ask yourself, "What have been the most fulfilling and rewarding moments in my life so far?"

For me, it’s things like having and raising my two children, my karate training, and building my coaching business.

What is it for you?

I’m willing to bet the things you listed all involved some amount of effort, struggle, or pain. That you had to get out of your comfort zone, had moments of self-doubt, made mistakes, and had to pick yourself up again.

And yet you choose these experiences — why?

Sometimes moderate struggle or pain provides a contrast that enhances future pleasure. For example, shoveling snow on a cold winter's day makes the hot chocolate afterward even more delicious.

Some choices, though, involve a lot of struggle, with no guarantee of happiness. Bloom uses the examples of people who climb Mt. Everest or who volunteer to go to war.

Most people know that before becoming parents, it’s going to be hard at times. Yet, they still make the choice — why?

Choosing struggle lets you test your limits, brings satisfaction, shows others and ourselves what you're capable of, and can create a bond with others through the shared experience. It can also give you a sense of purpose and meaning.

RELATED: The 10 Most Important Things In Life That Matter More Than Anything Else

From happiness to "well-being"

In other words, a life well lived is about a range of things — happiness, pleasure, meaning, purpose, and more.

Martin Seligman, author of "Flourish: A New Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing", recommends expanding your focus from happiness to well-being.

Seligman identifies 5 elements that each have a measurable contribution to your sense of well-being:

Positive emotions (your happiness and level of satisfaction with your life),

A sense of meaning and purpose.

How engaged you feel in our day-to-day activities.

A sense of accomplishment from what you do.

The quality of your relationships with others.

Bringing more of these elements into your life increases your well-being and helps you flourish.

A varied emotional "diet" may be good for you.

So, there's much more to a "life worth living" than feeling positive all the time.

But what about all those negative thought "loops" you can get stuck in? Is there a place for negative thoughts in a healthy emotional life?

Research by Jordi Quoidbach and others suggests that, just as with your diet, in your emotional life, balance and variety have substantial benefits for your physical health.

In a study involving over 35,000 people, those experiencing a diverse range of emotions were less likely to visit the doctor, spent less time in hospital, and relied less on prescription medications.

And this held true even for people whose "average" emotional state was negative.

Emotional diversity also had a slight protective effect against depression. Although our average emotional state plays a more dominant role here; to avoid depression, we still want to swing the balance towards feeling positive.

So, if you want a life in which you truly flourish, it’s time to stop chasing happiness and expand your focus.

Challenge, struggle, pain, and negative thoughts are a part of our human experience. When you try to eliminate these from your life, you risk missing out on a life of purpose, accomplishment, and meaning.

Instead, you can look for ways to broaden your emotional "diet," and make day-to-day choices that allow you a sense of accomplishment, connection with others, activities that give us a sense of engagement, or that bring more meaning into your life.

RELATED: The 5 Worst Traits Of Bitter, Unhappy People (And How To Avoid Becoming One Of Them)

To help you get started in truly being happy, here are 3 ways to approach it.

1. Stop resisting negative thoughts and let them go.

Have you ever noticed that when you try not to think of something, it’s always on your mind? Often, when you resist negative thoughts, you actually make them stronger.

Instead, practice distancing yourself from them. If you're noticing a thought, this means you're not that thought. You're the person noticing it. That means the thought must be separate from you.

By simply acknowledging that you are not thoughts, you can reduce their emotional charge.

Here’s a variation on this technique, which helped me immensely some years ago, when I was struggling with burnout and depression.

I imagined that I was at a train station, watching trains come and go. The trains represented my thoughts. Some of the trains were ugly, some sparkling and clean. I gave myself the power to choose which trains I got onto. If the train was "Yucky", I’d let it go without me.

This game allowed me to create the mental space I needed to heal.

2. Explore alternative perspectives

Just because negative thoughts are inside your head doesn't mean they're true. They're simply one perspective on whatever is going on for you.

What other perspectives are possible?

You can also make this into a game. Pick some people you know and ask yourself, "How might they respond to this situation?"

For example, what would Arnold Schwarzenegger say? Brene Brown? Oprah?

Imagine how it would feel if you were to choose their perspectives instead.

3. Share kindness.

Acts of kindness towards others are a way to "give back" while also giving you feelings of satisfaction or joy.

Even very small things matter. I recall giving a smile to someone I passed on the street one day. She stopped in her tracks, amazed and moved that someone cared enough to see her and to smile.

Such a simple thing made her day and gave me a deep sense of satisfaction.

What is one wholly unexpected kind thing you could do tomorrow? Just do it and notice what happens to your mood.

RELATED: 27 Make Yourself Happy Quotes That Remind You To Own Your Happiness

Anna McKinlay is a Lifestyle and Wellbeing Coach, with a passion for helping working moms create well-being, and a life they love. For more information, visit her website and for additional tools and support, email Anna.