We all want to be happy – that much is obvious. But what happens if our incessant striving for contentment is actually making us feel the complete opposite? Whether it’s more money, a bigger house or a slimmer physique, there always seems to be something to aim for. In fact, we bet you’ve often said the words: “Wouldn’t it be brilliant if…” or “Won’t it be good when…”. But what about the here and now? How often do you say: “This is great, right now”? The answer is, probably rarely. So what can we do about it? H&W investigates…
This question is never more relevant than at this time of year. As Christmas approaches, the pressure on us all to be happy is heightened. We’re led to believe that if we can just nail the cooking of our turkey, find the ideal present for our loved ones or fit into that slightly-toosmall dress for the office party, our lives will be perfect. Ironically, however, this drive to achieve what we think will bring us joy doesn’t always pay off. Instead, we can get caught in a constant loop of comparing ourselves to others and never feeling like we’ve achieved enough.
Of course, to search for joy is natural, and to strive forward is a human trait. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to better ourselves, after all, but problems can arise when our aims are either unachievable or borne out of certain personal issues.
“Being driven is a positive thing as it motivates someone to reach their goals,” explains consultant psychologist Dr Elena Touroni, who’s the co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic (thechelseapsychologyclinic.com). “But ambition can become negative when it is out of touch with reality, or when the driving force is caused by an underlying fear of not being good enough.
“People who lose this balance have, what we call in psychology ‘unrelenting standards’,” she adds. “For these people, the sky’s the limit and there is always space to achieve more. The problem here is that having unrelenting standards can have a very negative impact on our sense of self. Some people only value themselves by what they have achieved, rather than valuing themselves for who they are. Ultimately, this constant drive to achieve is an overcompensation in order to feel worthy.”
So, how can we readdress this imbalance? The answer seems to be right in the present moment.
“We are all too focused on ‘having’ and ‘doing’, rather than simply being,” says mindset coach Poppy Delbridge (poppydelbridge.com). “We are hardwired to believe that our happiness stems from external factors (such as other people, material stuff or our jobs) rather than internal, but this isn’t necessarily the case.”
For Poppy, the key is to understand what brings you joy and to live in the present moment as much as possible. “We can feel stuck and frustrated if we dwell too much in the past or stretch too far into the future,” she explains. “But we have a choice. We can choose to positively disrupt these feelings and embrace the present moment as an opportunity for something new.”
She suggests creating a ‘happy map’ to help you do this. “Put pen to paper and get positive,” she says. “What are you good at? Create a list of your accomplishments and positive qualities. Then, ask yourself: what makes you feel good? Decide to focus on actions that bring you joy and be unapologetic about receiving them. Overall, we deserve much more than we think we do, and we are more than enough just as we are!”
There are other things you can do too – practising gratitude and accepting all the ups and downs of life are two ways to focus on what’s going well in your life, and it’s also useful to examine your goals in detail to allow yourself to feel joy when you make small steps in the right direction.
Either way, the important thing is to recognise when happiness is right in front of you.
Find joy in the present moment
Follow our experts’ top tips and feel happier right now
Be thankful for what you have
So, your best friend may be able to buy her children bigger and better Christmas presents than you can afford, or your sister may look stunning in her party dress, while you feel frumpy and old – but comparing yourself to others isn’t good for your wellbeing. “Practise gratitude for things you already have rather than focusing on the things you don’t have,” Dr Elena advises. Try using a gratitude journal or share positive moments of your day with your partner.
Accept the ups and downs of life
Being happy and content is also about accepting life as it is – with all its good bits and bad bits thrown in together. “Sometimes, we are faced with low times and trauma,” Poppy says. “Being content in the present moment begins with acceptance of the pain. Accepting that we are going to feel bad at some points in our lives is the first step and this can help us understand that pain is just a temporary experience.”
Work towards your vision
It’s good to have a clear idea of where you want to go in life, but you don’t have to rush to get there. Poppy recommends seriously considering what you’re trying to accomplish long-term. “Without knowing where you are going, it’s hard to know if you’re on track, and that can manifest as unease,” she explains. “If you’re clear on what you want for the future and set goals towards that, you can relax into the idea that you’re taking baby steps forward, no matter how small. This helps reduce anxiety and limits that pesky ‘going nowhere’ feeling because you’re always progressing each day.”
Don’t lose sight of what really matters
It’s true – it would be wonderful if your Christmas dinner was utterly perfect this year, with restaurant-worthy Yorkshire puddings and flavoursome veg combinations, but does it really matter if it’s not? Perhaps it would be OK if everything was just simply ready on time, and you didn’t forget to make the gravy. “Consider what is good enough,” says Dr Elena. “How far are you really willing to go? Think about your values and goals and make sure your pursuit of achievement fits in line with them. So often this kind of relentless drive can make us lose sight of the things that really matter to us.”
Understand your drive
If you can see that your constant striving is having a significant impact on your life, it may be worth considering what has led you to feel the way you do. “Dig deep to understand where this drive stems from,” advises Dr Elena. “Do you feel like you’re trying to prove something either to yourself or others? Can you trace back to where this all started? Therapy is a great place to start exploring your earlier experiences and how they might be impacting you now.”