Are you happy?

It isn’t a question I ask too often. This may surprise you, but I think happiness is over rated. I think that the pursuit of happiness has become a craze that has made us believe every day should be filled with unblemished bliss. Being happy all the time is not real life. The idea that is even possible is fake news! What would those truly blissful times in your life be without struggle? Life would be flat. Challenges are how we build character and experience, as well as an appreciation for those moments of sweetness. So, if not happiness, then what?

I believe life is about making the best of who you are and what your circumstances are, and sometimes that’s difficult, even painful. Life, in my opinion, should be about loving and laughing and giving, connecting and caring. It should be about living with passion and purpose as you work hard to create the best life you can. This is what gives life texture and flavor. This is how you gain a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. When you consider all that life is, “happiness” seems almost a trivial goal. That is not to say that you don’t deserve happiness or shouldn’t seek to achieve it. It just means that happiness comes in moments. It appears almost magically, like a surprise gift. But it isn’t meant to be the pervasive feeling that we should all expect to have all day, every day.

I’ve been thinking about happiness a lot lately because the subject came up recently when I was reviewing blood tests with a patient and explaining to her that her results were abnormal. We had already established that she had the metabolic and genetic profile of someone who should stay away from sugars and simple carbs, yet on this blood test, her triglycerides were elevated and she was pre-diabetic. These are both signs of blood sugar that is too high. I asked her about her diet and she explained to me that she had a nightly ice cream habit. When I told her that needed to change right away, she looked at me like I was crazy—like my request was utterly absurd. Why? Because ice cream “made her happy.” When I told her that her happiness would eventually lead to diabetes, she got very upset. How could I possibly take away her happiness? What a mean doctor I am!

Of course, I am not a mean doctor, and I’m sure my patient knows at some level that I was not taking anything away from her. I was simply trying to put things into perspective. Is “happiness” that momentary fleeting emotion that comes from tasting sugar on your tongue? Or is it the deep-seated sense of satisfaction you get from taking care of yourself and experiencing health?

I believe true happiness comes from a sense of peace, camaraderie, purpose, love, passion, and dedication. You might experience it when you are in nature, or witnessing something beautiful, or when you spend time with family, friends, or pets, or when you are doing your favorite activity or accomplishing a goal. And I do believe, of course, that happiness is most possible and most easily accessible in the presence of health. “Happiness” may seem like it can be found in a bowl of ice cream, but if you step back for a moment and look at the big picture, you can see that the nightly ice cream habit is actually a tricky and deceiving road away from happiness and towards future suffering.

I often think about how to help people live their best lives, and how this often involves behavioral changes. Whenever I have these conversations with patients, that pesky word “happiness” always seems to show up somewhere, and I find it is quite often connected to food. Yes, I agree that food should be enjoyable, but not because it is pumping you full of substances that induce a temporary “high” that is gone as soon as the snack or the dessert is over. Perhaps what we need to do is put happiness, or at least that temporary feeling of pleasure, in the same category as desserts or presents or holidays—as a side dish to life, not the main course. We all have the right to be happy, but does anybody have the right to be happy in the moment, all the time? And would we really want to be? If hard work or struggle in the moment leads to a greater, deeper sense of life satisfaction, isn’t that a better goal—a more mature and evolved goal—than a sugar high?

Maybe the real problem is in how we define happiness. If happiness is that sense of having a meaningful life that you can get from the relationships you have, work that aligns with your purpose, and how you treat yourself mentally, physically, and emotionally, then you may find your priorities shifting. One day you may wake up to recognize that your true desire and motivation is to focus on your own well-being—which is something much deeper and longer lasting than mere happiness. Something that can’t be found at the bottom of the ice cream bowl.

I often say “live from the heart” to describe that way of living that aligns with who you are and what is really important to you. You can begin building this kind of inner scaffolding of self-esteem and self-love by…

  • Moving more in a way that your body enjoys.
  • Eating food that tastes good but is also good for your body and invigorates rather than drains you.
  • Sleeping restfully and waking up restored and regenerated.
  • Enjoying the people and experiences that mean something to you.
  • Laughing more, and knowing that you are in loving and supportive relationships.

When I say “live from the heart” what I don’t mean is “be happy all the time.” What I mean is that you experience life in all its beautiful and challenging complexity, in a way that is authentic to who you are inside. So forget happiness. You’re so much more than that. Instead, find purpose in your days. Find your passions and pursue them.

Let go of the things in your life that you cannot control (like the past) or predict (like the future), and focus on the changes that can make your life and health better right here, right now. Stay present and mindful. Love with all your heart. When you do all this, who needs ice cream? There is plenty of happiness to be had in life without it. And, hey, if a scoop once in a while feels like happiness, then go for it. Pleasure in moderation can also be a part of balanced, meaningful, and yes, happy life.

Click here to buy Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum’s book, Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum’s Heart Book: Every Woman’s Guide to a Heart-Healthy Life