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Is the Pursuit of Happiness an Illusion or a Worthwhile Goal?

“When one door of happiness closes, another opens, but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one that has been opened for us.” — Helen Keller

The Pursuit of Happiness


The American author Henry David Thoreau once said: “Happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder…”

If we suggest happiness is an illusion that means it is impossible to achieve. Considering the suffering in the world, many believe happiness is an unattainable goal. It is remiss of me to solve this question in an article when religion and philosophy have tried to settle this dilemma for centuries. I can only reason that despite the suffering in the world, happiness is still attainable.

How is this possible you ask?

In underdeveloped countries inspite of poverty, happiness prevails when people’s basic needs are met. Contrast to the developed countries, daily life is more chaotic with high rates of stress and mental illness due to our demanding lifestyle.

To offer another opinion, the Canadian psychologist Jordan B. Peterson writes in 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos: “In a crisis, the inevitable suffering that life entails can rapidly make a mockery of the idea that happiness is the proper pursuit of the individual.”

So, by focussing on the suffering in the world means losing sight of happiness as an attainable goal. In which case, it becomes a fleeting experience when your attention is directed towards it.

Many people believe happiness will transform their lives. Hence, the seeker travels far and wide in search of it, while all along it is contained within him.

Our hectic lifestyle makes happiness harder to attain since our minds are constantly preoccupied with something. Technology and communication devices vie for our attention and many people find it challenging to be alone in silence without a smart phone tethered to them.

I contend that happiness is achievable when we let go of unnecessary distractions. These include: toxic thoughts, habits, negative emotions, destructive relationships, unimportant commitments, etc.

By simplifying life, we create the idyllic conditions for happiness to thrive.

The teacher of spiritual self-enquiry Rupert Spira, explains in Being Aware of Being Aware that happiness is our core nature and cannot be gained, but expressed: “Happiness is our very nature and lies at the source of the mind, or the heart of ourself, in all conditions and under all circumstances. It cannot be acquired; it can only be revealed.”

If we direct our attention on the negatives of life, i.e. daily news, gossip & tabloid magazines, etc., we are drawn to what is wrong in the world, thus inhibiting the flow of happiness. You cannot read the tabloids without being fixated on the next ensuing drama. Our awareness should be channelled into worthwhile experiences which offer joy and happiness instead.

The notion that happiness is elusive stems from our inability to concentrate our attention long enough to experience it. If we believe happiness is unattainable, it becomes elusive since we have not created a conducive environment for it to flourish.

Reconnect With Happiness

“There is only one cause of unhappiness: the false beliefs you have in your head, beliefs so widespread, so commonly held, that it never occurs to you to question them.” – Anthony de Mello

Your beliefs shape your perceptions, which creates your experience of life.

Regrettably, many people drive happiness away because of their constant attention on external conditions. Therefore, suffering is inevitable when their needs are not met.

The need for evidence that the world is a dark and grim place makes happiness an impossible goal. Fear and hatred are broadcast into our minds every moment of the day, it’s no wonder it seems like an illusion.

Similarly, popular culture espouses that material possessions are the only source of happiness and fulfilment. If you don’t earn a seven figure salary or drive the latest European sports car and live in an affluent neighbourhood, you must be unhappy. And so the vicious cycle continues.

At the same time, many search for happiness through worldly experiences only to discover it has vanished from their lives when they return home. At this point they direct their interest towards gaining more ‘things’ or becoming involved in an intimate relationship in the hope it will bring them the happiness they long for.

Assuredly, the novelty wears off once more and they are back where they started—struggling to fill an empty void.

It begs the question, does happiness happen to us?—is it an externally generated experience, or a user generated experience?

If we subscribe to the belief that happiness occurs without our control, we remain at the mercy of it being a transitory experience. Conversely, if we believe we are the wellspring of our own happiness, it will present itself in our everyday life. This is empowering for several reasons least of which submits we become the source of our own joy instead of believing it is not within our own volition.

In his book Hardwiring Happiness, neuropsychologist Rick Hanson summarises how happiness can be attained by applying a four step practice, he calls H.E.A.L.

  1. Have a positive experience

     2. Enrich it

     3. Absorb it

     4. Link a positive experience to it (optional)

1. Have a positive experience: Hold the thought of a positive experience in your mind such the gratitude towards your partner, pet or family. Find evidence of an experience and focus on that.

2. Enrich it: Stay with the experience longer and feel it in your body. Notice it in new ways and experience the feelings as openly as you can. This is a mental exercise that requires training your brain to associate pleasure with your thoughts.

3. Absorb it: Allow the sensations you experienced in Step 2 to sink deeper into your mind and body. Allow it to become a cellular experience. For example, the sense of falling in love will be felt in your chest or you might experience tingling sensations throughout your body. Allow it to become a mind-body experience.

4. Link a positive experience to it (optional): While holding a positive experience in the forefront of your mind, find an association to a negative thought from the past. Shift between the two thoughts, however give more attention to the enriching experience while the negative ones gradually fall away.

To attain happiness, we must connect with our core nature, yet be able to find happiness in our everyday life. You will be surprised how inviting the world can be when you notice the smallest things that bring you happiness. It involves building a mental sanctuary leaning towards happy moments and pruning away undesirable experiences.

Allow the joy to come from within you, not without. It was the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius who said: “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”

If you rush about your daily life, plugged in to electronic devices with little or no quiet time, happiness will pass you by like a high-speed train.

So make it a vow to integrate happiness into your life by noticing it in your everyday life. Reconnect with your child-like nature. Be curious towards the simple things in life and I assure you, happiness will not seem like an illusion.

A Leading Self-Empowerment Author, Keynote Speaker and Coach. Your Journey Towards Greatness Starts Here:

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We all want to become better, happier people, and we work pretty hard at it. The marketing world keeps reminding us that we are not even close to our potential and holds up endless images of perfection that reinforce that idea. The solution advertising offers is a better appearance, more friends, accomplishments, public recognition, power, etc. We are programmed into being defined by external factors.

Additionally, self-help resources are everywhere. There are seminars, healers, books, lectures, and retreats, much of which can be helpful. The message is “if I had more of ‘___________’ I would be a happier person.” This includes wisdom, the tools on this web site, less pain, etc.

What we really mean when we say that we want to be happy is that we would like to experience less anxiety.

The “Abyss”

Many, if not most, of my patients would test out just fine on a psychological test. But chronic pain will still take you down anyway. It creates extreme anxiety and frustration. I define “The Abyss” as:

                                                      Anxiety x Anger x Time

The Abyss represents an unspeakably dark area of your brain. My patients can’t express it with words. I spent over seven years in a severe burnout. My experience also included chronic pain in several areas of my body. I experienced an intense burning sensation in both of my feet, tinnitus, multiple areas of tendonitis, migraine headaches and crushing right-sided chest pain.I didn’t know why I was having all of these symptoms and all the testing was normal. I eventually lost all hope. I “pre-tested” every millimeter of the pathway outlined on this website, mostly by trying multiple approaches that didn’t work. Suffering from chronic pain is far removed from happiness.


The DOC process is paradoxical. The harder you try to get enough of the tools to “fix” yourself the less likely you are to be successful in becoming pain free (or happy). It is critical to understand that you have to enjoy your day with the idea that your pain or your life circumstances may never improve. In other words you must learn to enjoy life with what you have—NOW!

If you are waiting for more wisdom, more re-programming tools, more money, a nicer spouse, better-behaved kids, or less pain before you can fully engage in your life, it’s never going to happen. It is life’s ultimate paradox. The harder you try to “fix” your life and yourself, the less likely you are to enjoy it.

We also forget how illogical it is to think that all of the variables in our lives are going to align so well that we are going to finally be fulfilled. And if it could happen, how long do you think it would last? Think how much energy we spend trying to control so much. Yet, we don’t give up trying.

The Reverse Paradox

Then there is the other side of the paradox. The more you can enjoy your day in light of your current life circumstances; you will then possess more energy and creativity to create a life that you desire.

Enjoy Your Day-Today

An Exercise

I often do an exercise with my patients. I look at my watch and point out that the time is X and you have Y number of hours left in the day. I ask them to make a decision to enjoy the next number of hours regardless of their circumstances, including the pain. A major key to solving your pain is to step fully into the life you want, with or without the pain.

When I was in the middle of my own intense burnout about 10 years ago, I had to make ongoing decisions to just enjoy the next 15 minutes. I’m serious. I had to make a conscious effort every 15 to 30 minutes.

My ongoing challenge to myself and to my patients is, “Enjoy your day—today.”

Enjoy Your Day-Today


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