Happiness is like love: ask 20 people what it is and you will get 20 different answers.
So, what is happiness to you? Take a moment to reflect …
No, seriously, take a moment and really think about it! When’s the last time you’ve been really happy? What was going on in that moment?
If, for you, happiness is about feeling wonderful, filled with positive emotions and blissfully happy and without a worry in the world, then I have some bad news for you:
You will never achieve lasting happiness.
By that definition, it is a fleeting feeling, something that only ever comes and goes. You will never live “happily ever after”, because life will give you lemons and throw you a bunch of curved balls! Occasional life crises are a matter of when, not if. Yet despite the fact that you’ll most certainly experience dark and rainy days, some people seem to keep smiling even in dark times. So what’s their secret?
I want to introduce you to my take on how to achieve lasting happiness. It is for those who want to see the world as it is, for those who are willing to learn to not just manage, but to embrace life’s many challenges and those who are courageous enough to really live and get the most out of their time on this planet.
I call it Positive Existentialism. It comes with some handy guidelines and a lot of food for thought. So strap in, buckle up and let’s go for a ride!
Redefining Happiness – The Positive-Existential Take
Existentialists believe that anxiety is an inevitable part of being alive; that the simple act of being human comes with a set of inner conflicts, dilemmas and paradoxes, the “human condition. Existential thinkers agree that we cannot exist (or be there – “Dasein” as the German Philosopher Heidegger calls it) without experiencing some uncomfortable feelings. We can feel ‘good’ for some time (e.g. after we achieve something, while having fun with a friend, when we do something we’re really good at or when we’re otherwise distracted). But sooner or later we’re bound to feel sad, disappointed, frustrated, hungry, disillusioned, confused or doubtful. This will be usually when we have time to sit still, think deeply about our existence and allow ourselves to see our world as it really is. This is the ebb and flow of life. It takes courage to open our eyes to it.
There is only one way not to experience any of the ‘bad’ feelings and that is simply to hide! Hide from any sort of risk and live in denial about the basic facts of life. These facts can seem quite dark and gloomy when traditional existential thinkers describe them – we’re all going to die, nothing is certain, life is meaningless, hell is other people and we are essentially alone in the world. However, the positive existentialist sees a world full of opportunity, freedom and liberation! A world full of excitement, which is simply anxiety with a positive spin on it, and a whole spectrum of experiences on offer.
It’s tempting to avoid feeling bad and instead convince yourself that death is this thing in the distant future that you don’t have to worry about, to go have some fun when you feel uneasy about an important upcoming life decision, to get drunk with friends instead of sorting your life out … But by doing these things you’re only prolonging the inevitable. At some point, you will face these certainties of life in some form or another. Instead of pushing them away, the positive existentialist appreciates the positive value inherent in them.
For example, if we are all going to die sooner or later, then we have every reason to make the most out of our time on this planet. Death – the ultimate deadline – is one of the strongest motivators to get stuff done. If you were 100% sure about and knew everything – the football scores, the day you will die, the Game of Thrones plot or whether the date you have tonight will end in a terrible breakup a few years down the line – life would be a hell of a lot less exciting! If everyone was the same and we could all read each other’s minds and understand each other fully, relationships would lose their magic and we’d miss the diversity that makes humankind so colourful. If your existence as a whole is meaningless and there are no rules and no higher purpose or divine plan for your life, then you can make your own rules and you can do whatever the heck you want (as long as you can accept the potential consequences to your actions, obviously).
Life really is marvelous and amazing, in all its facets. We should be grateful for each and every moment we are alive and breathing, and truly grateful for the whole spectrum of emotions we experience. Of course, we don’t enjoy feeling ‘bad’, by its very nature. But you would never call anything ‘good’ if you had never experienced ‘bad’ in the first place. It would simply be the norm. And if ‘good’ is the new ‘normal’ then ‘okay’ becomes the new ‘bad’ by comparison, and you’ll have to aim for ‘amazing’ to feel ‘good’.
Feelings come and go, so lasting happiness must be more than a fleeting positive emotion. Positive Existentialists are happiest when they’re keeping it real. They want to face life as it is, no matter how challenging or uncomfortable it may feel. Eyes wide open and letting everything in, experiencing everything that life has to offer.
That right there is the key to being able to smile through adversity anxiety and pain in life.
Face it all courageously and embrace its dark side. There is no day without night and I want to explore it all. That’s what I call a life well-lived, a full life. That is what will make me look back before I die and think: I’ve made the most out of my time here. It’s what allows me to suffer with purpose and to be happy about every moment that I get to be on this ride. Knowing that I’m making the most of each and every second, in whatever form, feeling and experience that takes.
That’s a positive existential take on happiness.
Now go back to the question I asked you at the start of this article. What is happiness to you?
Has it changed since you’ve read this article? Does it need to change? Would you like to have a conversation about it? If so, let’s talk!
Step 2 of this series is called “Feel the Burn!” and will be released in a few weeks. If you don’t want to wait, here‘s the long and unedited version. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
About This Series
What I want to share with you in this series are small bits of wisdom, food for thought, some practical life advice and other nuggets that I’ve distilled from a decade of working with coaching clients, training and supervising other life coaches, my degrees in Applied Positive Psychology (MSc) and Existential Coaching (MA) and countless hours of introvert contemplation as well as lively debates with friends and colleagues. I hope you’ll find some value in this or the following posts and I would be delighted if you shared some of your thoughts or comments. And please feel free to pass any of this stuff on to those who you think may be a little too fond of staying in their comfort zone. Life has so much to offer when we go out and make courageous choices. Oh, and an existential coach can definitely help you on that journey. If you want to learn a little more or book a free consultation, have a look at www.existential.coach.