Jennifer Moss | HBR, August 20, 2015
Happiness isn’t the Absence of Negative Feelings

Happiness feels intolerably elusive for many of us. Like fog, you can see it from afar, dense and full of shape. But upon approach, its particles loosen and suddenly it becomes out of reach, even though it’s all around you.

We put so much emphasis on the pursuit of happiness, but if you stop and think about it, to pursue is to chase something without a guarantee of ever catching it.

Up until about six years ago, I was fervently and ineffectively chasing happiness. My husband, Jim, and I were living in San Jose, California, with our two-year-old son and a second baby on the way. On paper, our life appeared rosy. Still, I couldn’t seem to find the joy. I always felt so guilty about my sadness. My problems were embarrassingly “first world.”

Then in September 2009, my world tilted. Jim fell severely ill. He was diagnosed with Swine Flu (H1N1) and West Nile (NOS), then Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), due to his compromised immune system.

Jim never worried about death. I did.

When we were told Jim’s illness was letting up, that he’d won this round, we were relieved. When we were told Jim might not walk for some time – likely a year, maybe longer – we were worried. We knew this prognosis meant the end of Jim’s career as a pro lacrosse player. What we didn’t know was how we’d pay the medical bills, or how much energy Jim would have for parenting.

With 10 weeks to go until the baby arrived, I had very little time to think and reflect. Jim, on the other hand, only had time. He was used to moving at high speeds, both in life and on the field, so minutes passed like hours in the hospital. He was kept busy with physical and occupational therapy, but he was also in need of psychological support.

He put out a note to people in his social networks, asking them for reading suggestions that would help him to mentally heal. Suggestions flowed in. Books and audio tapes were delivered bedside with notes about how they’d “helped so much” after whatever difficulty this person had also experienced but overcame.

Jim would spend his days reading motivational books from Tony Robbins and Oprah or watching TED talks, like Jill Bolte Taylor’s Stroke of Insight, about the impacts of brain trauma. He would analyze spiritual books by Deepak Chopra and the Dalai Lama. Or review scientific research papers about happiness and gratitude written by researchers Martin Seligman, Shawn Achor, Sonja Lyubomirsky, and many others.

There was a repeated theme throughout all the literature – gratitude. It would weave in and out of the science, the true stories, and the drivers for success. Jim responded by starting a gratitude journal of his own. He got very thankful – thankful for the people who changed his sheets. Thankful for the family that would bring him hot meals at dinner. Thankful for the nurse who would encourage him and thankful for the extra time his rehab team would give on their own time. They once told Jim that they were only putting in extra time because they knew how grateful he was for their efforts.

He asked that I participate in his efforts, and because I wanted to help him to heal so badly and I was seeing how hard it was for him, I tried with all my efforts to be in a positive place when I came into his world inside that hospital room. I wasn’t always my best. I sometimes resented that I couldn’t break down – but after a while I started to see how rapidly he was getting better. And although our paths weren’t congruent, we were making it work. I was “coming around.”

It was shaky and scary, but when Jim walked out of the hospital on crutches (he stubbornly refused the wheelchair) only six weeks after he was rushed by ambulance to the ER, we decided there was something more to his healing than just dumb luck.

One of those early books that influenced Jim was Flourish, by Dr. Martin Seligman, psychologist and former President of the American Psychology Association. Seligman was responsible for defining the term “PERMA,” the root of many positive psychology research projects around the world. The acronym stands for the five elements essential to lasting contentment:

  • Positive Emotion: Peace, gratitude, satisfaction, pleasure, inspiration, hope, curiosity, and love fall into this category.
  • Engagement: Losing ourselves to a task or project that provides us with a sense of “disappeared time” because we are so highly engaged.
  • Relationships: People who have meaningful, positive relationships with others are happier than those who do not.
  • Meaning: Meaning comes from serving a cause bigger than ourselves. Whether a religion or a cause that helps humanity in some way, we all need meaning in our lives.
  • Accomplishment/Achievement: To feel significant life satisfaction, we must strive to better ourselves in some way.

We slowly brought these five tenets back into our life. Jim returned to Wilfrid Laurier University to research neuroscience, and we promptly started up Plasticity Labs to help teach others what we’d learned about the pursuit of happiness. As our lives came to include more empathy, gratitude, and meaning, I stopped feeling sad.

So when I see the recent skepticism directed at the positive psychology movement, I take it personally. Do these critics have a problem with gratitude? Relationships? Meaning? Hope?

Perhaps part of the problem is that we oversimplify happiness in our pop culture and media, which makes it easy to discard as unproven. As Dr. Vanessa Buote, a postdoctoral fellow in social psychology, put it in an email to me:

One of the misconceptions about happiness is that happiness is being cheerful, joyous, and content all the time; always having a smile on your face. It’s not – being happy and leading rich lives is about taking the good with the bad, and learning how to reframe the bad. In fact, recent research titled “Emodiversity and the Emotional Ecosystem,” by Harvard [researcher Jordi] Quoidbach, found that experiencing a wide range of emotions – both positive and negative – was linked to positive mental and physical well-being.

Not only do we tend to misunderstand what happiness is, we also tend to chase it the wrong way. Shawn Achor, the researcher and corporate trainer who wrote the HBR article “Positive Intelligence,” told me most people think about happiness the wrong way: “The biggest misconception of the happiness industry is that happiness is an end, not a means. We think that if we get what we want, then we’ll be happy. But it turns out that our brains actually work in the opposite direction.”

Buote agrees: “We sometimes tend to see ‘being happy’ as the end goal, but we forget that what’s really important is the journey; finding out what makes us the happiest and regularly engaging in those activities to help us lead a more fulfilling life.”

In other words, we’re not happy when we’re chasing happiness. We’re happiest when we’re not thinking about it, when we’re enjoying the present moment because we’re lost in a meaningful project, working toward a higher goal, or helping someone who needs us.

Healthy positivity doesn’t mean cloaking your authentic feelings. Happiness is not the absence of suffering; it’s the ability to rebound from it. And happiness is not the same as joy or ecstasy; happiness includes contentment, well-being, and the emotional flexibility to experience a full range of emotions. At our company, some of us have dealt with anxiety and depression. Some have experienced PTSD. Some of us have witnessed severe mental illness in our families and some of us have not. We openly share. Or we don’t – either way is fine. We support tears in the office, if the situation calls for it (in both sorrow and in laughter).

Today, perhaps looking for a “fresh angle,” some have even argued that happiness is harmful. The point of practicing exercises that help increase mental and emotional fitness is not to learn to paste a smile on your face or wish away your problems. It’s to learn to handle stressors more resiliently, just the way you wouldn’t run a marathon without training for it.

During my time with Jim in the hospital, I watched him change; in subtle ways at first, but then all at once, I realized that gratitude and happiness gave me a gift. It gave me Jim. If happiness is harmful – then I say, bring it on.