How trying to be happy makes you miserable

Illustrations by John P. Weiss

In 2014 I started blogging on my website JohnPWeiss.com. I knew very little about blogging but enjoyed writing poignant little stories and posting articles about the creative arts.

I seldom received comments on my blog posts, but the process of writing was enjoyable to me. It helped me address new ideas, refine my thinking, and explore my creativity.

Then social media ruined everything.

Get noticed in a noisy world

Facebook and Instagram led me to the websites of successful bloggers. They had legions of followers and seemed to be making a boatload of money off their books, courses, and products. They were online celebrities.

Suddenly, I wanted to be like those successful bloggers, which was strange. I built my website, JohnPWeiss.com, to showcase my fine art paintings. I planned to retire from my law enforcement career and become a full-time artist, not a blogger.

Then one day I discovered Michael Hyatt’s book, “Platform: Get Noticed In A Noisy World.” Hyatt is a successful blogger, and I read his book cover to cover.

I started to mimic Hyatt’s style of blog posts. My content changed, too. I began writing more about personal development, and less about the creative arts.

I still wasn’t happy

Later, I discovered another successful blogger, Jeff Goins. I flew down to Franklin, Tennessee, for Jeff’s first “Tribe Writer” conference, and learned a great deal about blogging.

Next, I hired the former chief content writer for Copyblogger Media (now Rainmaker Digital), Demian Farnworth, to teach me copywriting. In short, I completely immersed myself in blogging.

Finally, I discovered the website Medium.com and began posting articles there. I even took a course (Medium Mastery) by Thomas Kuegler to improve my exposure on Medium.

My painting productivity suffered, but my blogging became more successful. With effort and consistency, my followers grew substantially. I wasn’t a blogging superstar like Michael Hyatt or Jeff Goins, but I started to generate a good monthly income from my blogging.

Yet, I still wasn’t happy.

I kept comparing my success to big-time bloggers. Even though I generated an enviable following, I wasn’t happy. I paid too much attention to my stats. I was emulating other bloggers, instead of following my own path. It was sort of like playing a song I hated, over and over again.

Writing blog posts wasn’t much fun anymore. It became a grind. The more I focused on finding happiness with my blogging, the more miserable I became.

“Unhappiness is not knowing what we want and then killing ourselves to get it.” -Don Herold

Despite increasing success and income, I started to resent the whole blogging thing. More than once I considered quitting altogether and going back to a quiet life of painting and writing poignant little stories.

We try too hard to be happy

research study found that one of the reasons we’re not happy is because we try too hard to be happy.

The study’s co-author, Brock Bastian, is a social psychologist at the University of Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences. In an email to Time.com, Bastian noted:

“Happiness is a good thing, but setting it up as something to be achieved tends to fail.”

Mark Manson, the author of the best-selling book, “The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F***,” wrote:

“The desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.”

In other words, the more we pursue feeling happy, the less happy we become. Because it reinforces what we lack, whether money, looks, fame, etc.

The built-in metrics of social media (likes, claps, followers, etc.) lures us into comparing our stats with others, thus exacerbating our unhappiness. Instead of being pleased with our work, we fret about how well we’re competing.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” -Theodore Roosevelt

The more I fixated on becoming a blogging success like Michael Hyatt and Jeff Goins, the more unhappy I became. When we focus on what we don’t have, we fail to appreciate (and leverage) what we do have.

So if we try too hard to be happy, what’s the alternative?

What quickens your heart?

I finally sat down one day and asked myself an important question: Why was I trying to become a successful blogger like Michael Hyatt and Jeff Goins? I had a good retirement income from my police career and originally planned to become a landscape painter.

The other important question I asked myself was: To what end? Where did I hope to arrive at? What was the ultimate goal? Money? Fame? An inflated ego?

I came to realize that my obsessive-compulsive nature hijacked my goals. Before diving deep into blogging, the thing that made me happiest was creating art and writing from the heart. My greatest joy came from improving my craft, not social media likes and more newsletter subscribers.

So I stopped emulating the bigtime bloggers and worrying about my stats. I began putting more time into my cartoon illustrations and crafting essays that I enjoyed writing. I pursued more authentic work.

I reduced my output of blog posts, to free up time for my fine art painting, and projects like books and courses I want to create. Fewer articles meant less income, but I’m enjoying the work more now. It feels meaningful and fulfilling. I never really wanted to be a big-time blogger, with all the attendant headaches that working on that scale requires.

Another question worth asking is this:

What quickens your heart?

What activity, passion or pursuit gets you excited? What do you love doing more than anything else? What do you most look forward to? What brings you true fulfillment and joy?

Once you figure out what quickens your heart, the next step is to craft your life around it. This doesn’t mean being reckless and giving up your day job or neglecting family responsibilities, but it does mean reprioritizing. Saying no to the unimportant things, so you can chase the thing(s) you love the most.

Something important and meaningful

Have you explored the underlying motivations for what you think will make you happy? Honest and close examination may uncover some uncomfortable realizations.

Maybe you’re in law school because your older sister became a lawyer and that’s what your family expects you to do. Except you hate it, and deep down, always wanted to become a marine biologist.

Perhaps your girlfriend pushed you into Crossfit because she’s a fitness buff and disapproves of your diminutive beer gut. Except you aren’t into hardcore fitness. Your passion is the craft brewery you started. You want to enjoy your passion and grow your business, not spend every day doing burpees and powerlifting.

Sometimes we think our happiness will come from meeting the expectations of others, but that’s a recipe for disappointment. Why tie our joy to the approval of others? It only empowers them and steals our independence.

Best-selling author James Clear wrote a succinct, three-sentence summation of Mark Manson’s book, “The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F***”:

“Finding something important and meaningful in your life is the most productive use of your time and energy. This is true because every life has problems associated with it and finding meaning in your life will help you sustain the effort needed to overcome the particular problems you face. Thus, we can say that the key to living a good life is not giving a f*** about more things, but rather, giving a f*** only about the things that align with your personal values.”

Stop focusing so much on happiness and instead ask yourself what’s important and meaningful in your life.

For many people, it’s their creative passion (painting, writing, photography, music, etc). For others, it’s helping people, raising great children, higher education, or caring for their family.

When we stop comparing ourselves to others, looking for approval, and chasing the next level of success, we can slow down and focus on what’s important and meaningful. Happiness may come and go, but pursuing what’s important and meaningful will lead to a more fulfilling life.

Solving problems and achieving

All the truly valuable things in life don’t come easy. Fitness, great kids, mastery of difficult skills, and helping others require effort, pain, sacrifice, discipline and more.

Pursuing such valuable things is both important and meaningful, but runs counter to the instant gratification world we live in. It’s much easier to surf the couch, watch Netflix, or space out on social media. The problem is that these diversions won’t get you where you want to go in life.

True happiness comes from solving problems and achieving. True happiness comes from taking action against laziness, indifference, addictions, denial, and negativity. True happiness comes from being honest with ourselves and living authentic lives.

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” -Mahatma Gandhi

When we do hard things in the service of what’s important and meaningful, our sense of accomplishment lasts longer than happiness.

Rest satisfied with what we have

The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca argued that putting things off is the biggest waste of our lives. Deep down, most of us know that our happiness won’t come from comparison, trying to please others, or pursuing things that fail to quicken our hearts. Yet we keep putting off the important and meaningful things in our lives.

“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.” -Seneca

Stop worrying about happiness. Get busy chasing your passion. Do the hard work. Make sacrifices. Solve problems and achieve them. Embrace what’s important and meaningful. Remember to have gratitude. Do these things, and you’ll find that the whole happiness thing will take care of itself.

Before you go

I’m John P. Weiss. I draw cartoons, paint landscapes, and write about life. Get my free weekly newsletter here.