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Stop Striving for Happy: Try Well-Being Instead

4 reasons to cultivate well-being and how to get started.

Key points

  • It's normal to not always feel happy, yet, for many people, when we are not feeling happy, we feel that we have fallen short in some way.
  • While happiness tends to be more fleeting, well-being is like a deep well from which we can draw nourishment no matter what is happening.
  • Well-being is not dependent on circumstances outside of us.
Source: Fotorech/Pixaby

Recently, I had a number of days when I felt in a funk. I felt many emotions, none of which were happy. Despite the cold northeast weather at this time of year, I have found my daily walks have been essential for me—especially since the pandemic. So, I headed to my favorite place—the woods. I am fortunate to live near some beautiful walking trails, and there in the woods, surrounded by pine trees, lake and bubbling stream, cold air and solid ground, I feel a deep sense of well-being. It is as if this well-being is large enough and expansive enough to hold all of my emotions whether pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. There is room for all of it, without it needing to be a certain way.

These past years of the pandemic have not been an easy time for most people. And I don’t think I’m alone in having days when I feel worn down and worn out by all of it. I’ve had my share of ups and downs in mood, my share of anxiety and worry, sleepless nights, and other challenges unrelated to the pandemic. There are days when I don’t feel happy. Yet, through it all, I have been trying to cultivate a deeper sense of well-being that can hold it all.

Well-Being Versus Happiness

I think of well-being as like a deep well from which we can draw nourishment, no matter what is going on. It is not dependent on “doing” but welcomes a state of “being” just as we are. Meditation is one practice that helps me to cultivate this sense of well-being. Being in nature is another.

While there are many definitions of happiness, I think of happiness more as a temporary state that feels good in the moment and evokes positive and energizing emotions. Happiness, as it is typically referred to, is most often circumstantial—dependent upon certain circumstances and conditions. It is fleeting. Moods come and go. Emotions come and go. It is not realistic to expect that I will feel happy all the time. Yet there can be subtle and not-so-subtle messages from society that happiness is the gold standard and that, when we are not feeling happy, somehow we’ve fallen short, and maybe even that there is something wrong with us. More than a handful of people have shared with me recently how when they are on social media and see all these posts and photos of connections who all look like they are living such happy lives, they feel less than, that somehow they don’t measure up. This is one danger of the happiness myth.

Focus on Well-Being Instead

In my recent reflections and observations on the difference between happiness and well-being, here are a few things I have noticed:

  1. Well-being is not dependent upon mood. Sometimes I or others can be sad or even experiencing grief, but there can nonetheless be a sense of well-being alongside this. This can happen when there is a sense of deep connection and being supported by others, or a sense of connection with oneself. When we can meet our own pain and suffering with self-compassion, kindness, and permission to feel however we feel, and when we can do things to take care of ourselves in small but meaningful ways, well-being can be present alongside whatever emotions we are feeling.
  2. Well-being is not dependent upon circumstance. I am happy when I am spending time with friends and family. I experience well-being because I have deep, meaningful relationships and connections in my life. Even when I am not with my friends or family, I can draw upon that feeling of connection, love, and support as part of my internal experience of well-being.
  3. Well-being is not dependent upon doing. I am happy when I am doing activities I enjoy. I feel a sense of well-being when I am connected to or in alignment with the things that most deeply matter to me. I can feel a sense of happiness when I look forward to watching a favorite show on Netflix, but that certainly does not bring me a sense of well-being, and that enjoyment is temporary. When I am living my life in alignment with what is important to me—creating, connecting, teaching, inspiring, helping—there is a sense of well-being present. Even when I am not actively doing those things, when I am connected to that energy, purpose, and meaning, it nourishes me.
  4. Well-being is not a quick fix. It is a deep well. I am happy eating a delicious dessert my daughter bakes, but I feel well-being when I nourish myself with foods that help me experience long-term health. I am happy when I get likes on my posts and when my book sales go up, but that happiness is not lasting. Deeper well-being for me comes from the process of contributing or sharing something authentic and putting it out in the world because I believe it matters, regardless of the outcome.

Try This

Here are a few questions to reflect on that may help you discover how to nurture well-being in your life:

  • What might it be like to give yourself permission to feel however you feel, whether pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, and to greet whatever is there with kind attention? You might imagine a loving parent holding a child who is scared, angry, or upset and how, in their presence, the child is soothed. It is not easy to do this for ourselves, but it is a practice worth coming back to.
  • Make a list of some of the things that bring you a feeling of happiness. Now write down times when you have felt a deep sense of well-being. Notice what is similar and different about each of these lists. From looking at this, do you have a sense of anything that might help you cultivate well-being?
  • If you think of well-being as a deep well from which you can draw nourishment, what are the things that most nourish you in your life? Have those things been the same for you over the years, or have they changed over time?
  • Is there a place, perhaps in nature, in which you experience well-being? Or perhaps there is a “place” in your mind, in your imagination, that allows you to experience this. What does well-being feel like in your mind and body when you are there? How is this similar to or different from times when you feel happy? How might your mind and imagination be a portal through which you might experience well-being? What states of mind (e.g., equanimity, perspective, mindful awareness) help you cultivate well-being? What bodily states (e.g., calm, peaceful, relaxed, at ease, certain kinds of movement) help you cultivate well-being?
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