Why do we think we have to be happy all the time?

“There was that day when you lost your charm”

–From the song “Arms” by Seabear

big smile

This morning, I woke up cranky.  I felt off and uninteresting. I wasn’t digesting well and I had the painful realization that I’m neglecting important things far too often and I spend way too much money and now it is probably too late to ever recover. This all came on the tail of some unfortunate incidents: My car broke down last week and I had an expensive repair.  My plumbing leaked under the cement foundation and the plumbers tore up my floor and then mixed cement in my house. Ugh. So messy.  My little one started kindergarten and my friend left town for graduate school, and my “no coffee resolve” dissolved.  There were the circumstances that left me feeling blegh and there were the feelings, but it gets worse because right after registering this initial funk, another layer of sludge came over me. I was angry with myself for feeling off.  My unconscious and I have an unspoken belief that I should always feel special and happy, no whining and no exceptions.


If you ask me if I believe that I should always feel happy, there’s no way I’d admit to it.  At an intellectual level and after many years of yoga and therapy, I know that there is a healthy range of emotions that we all feel.  They can be useful and informative and we can learn to look at them from the eyes of a neutral observer in order to discover things about ourselves. Svadyaya or self-reflection can help us understand these patterns and problems.  We can recognize that we are not our feelings, that instead, we are something unchanging and divine and when we practice listening to that voice, the unchanging voice of our true self,  we experience a lot less suffering.  We have a clarity and perhaps more peace about all the things that do change because we know there’s something that doesn’t.  It sounds like I’ve got it, right? When I’m balanced and happy, I’m really good at keeping these things in mind.  I’m very comforted by this perspective.  But then a few crummy things come my way and I forget.  It’s like the me of 10 years ago takes over and I forget all about being kind to myself and things that are temporary and tuning into my feelings. Any deep understanding that might come from self-reflection is missed because I’m too caught up with the disappointment of not feeling happy.

Yoga has a way of describing this experience. The five Klesas describe ways that we misperceive and the problems that arise.  When some part of us mistakenly operates as if these changing things that come up (car, crankiness, digestion) are permanent or are who we are, this causes suffering for us.  The yoga sutras say that if we act based on a misperception, it doesn’t turn out well.  It always leaves a stain.  Avidya is the mother of all misperceptions.  It is based on what we see and believe to be true, which feels really true, but maybe we miss something or confuse what we see and we haven’t actually gotten it right.  Believing I always need to feel happy is definitely avidya.  Feeling all the things that come up, not stuffing them down or refusing to look at them, gives me a much greater chance at contentment and balance which might lead to happiness… but when avidya is in effect, I have this misperception that I should be able to maintain constant happiness.  When I’m not happy, this makes me more unhappy.

The other four Klesas are all based on avidya.  Asmita is a tendency to confuse our identity.  We mix up who we are with things that aren’t really who we are.  Asmita says “I am a cranky person,” but this could more accurately be expressed as, “I feel cranky today”. Raga is the belief that something outside of me can make me happy. If only Summer could last a few more weeks and I could hang out with the girls, then I’d be happyDvesa is the belief that something outside of me can make me unhappy: Car and plumbing issues.  Abhinivesa is fear or even fear of death: I might never feel happy again.

It’s crazy that I should believe (again, not at an intellectual level but more at a gut/cellular level) that I should be happy all of the time. I’m really glad I recognized it, because when I was able to notice I had this “you WILL be happy” thing going on, I could chill out a little bit.   I was able to take a look at what was going on and why I was feeling off  and I was able to allow myself a little time to acknowledge my week of emotions.  I miss my children and I’m worried that I wasted the time when they were home with me.  Car and plumbing problems suck. etc. As this happened gradually and throughout the day, my mood shifted and I could see the genuine happiness that was in me already.


11 thoughts on “Why do we think we have to be happy all the time?

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post! Served as a great reminder for me. I really enjoy the way you write and present ideas in an accessible but personal approach. Look forward to reading more of your blog!


  2. A friend is writing a book about how Americans are too anxious because they constantly seek happiness. When she first told me about it, I really struggled with the premise. I found it obnoxious, not true. Then an American friend with a British husband told me she feels that that’s true, that in England there’s no assumption that you will always be happy, whereas here, there is. How freeing, I thought, to not have it understood that happiness is the end-all-be-all.

    On another level, I just wanted to say I woke up cranky and off too. And I’m trying to use mindfulness to get me through it, to see it as transitory, fleeting. So this was a really nice read. Thank you.

    1. Oh, wow. I think this thing about Americans seeking happiness and becoming anxious over it all really is true. Or at least THIS American. I have had this idea implanted that if I’m not happy, then something is wrong or I am doing something wrong. It extends to my relationships. “If we aren’t always happy, then maybe this isn’t working or I haven’t found the right person, or maybe we just shouldn’t be friends.” I have a desire to blame this on the “happily ever after” thing that goes on in our retellings of stories.

      Historically, I’ve had very little tolerance for other less-pleasant feelings, though I’m getting better at it.

      I’m so tempted to say something about hoping your crankiness didn’t last too long, but maybe I’m perpetuating this thing. Ha ha ha. but I do…

      1. Yeah, relationships is another whole can of worms, isn’t it? Our own happiness is one thing, and how we relate to the people we’re close to is another altogether. I wonder if the impulse to run when things get difficult is because we can’t ride it out? HMMM.

        Oh, the crankiness. It’s coming in waves. Meh!

  3. I fall out of my practice all the time. Like you, Amanda, I can go along with some awareness of reality, then something happens and I’m right back in a big pile of klesha. The idea, I guess, is to keep after it until it’s no longer something just up in your head and that clarity has become embodied. I took Buddhist refuge vows some years ago. The venerable old monk I took vows with spoke practically no English. When we had finished the ritual, he leaned close to me, looked into my eyes and said, “Practice.” He knew that word in English. Great post as always, Amanda. Thank you.

    1. Bharat, I love your comment–everything about it. I am still learning that we fall out of practice and that is part of the practice. It is possible that we may, eventually, embody this clarity. Beautiful. And your experience with the monk is so vivid in my mind. “Practice.” I freakin’ love that. It affirms for me the beauty and challenges of these efforts and the humanity in the whole thing.

  4. One of my favorite quotes from the last few years comes from Alberto Villoldo. He says: “Most of us confuse grace and happiness, but the former is profound and transformative, while the latter is fleeting and causal.” Because of the ongoing shift since I began Yoga, I strive to be gracious rather than happy.

    The full text of the article can be found here: http://www.creationsmagazine.com/articles/C121/Villoldo.html, it’s worth reading.

    1. This Krisnamacharya tradition is great for offering philosophical framework to see things from a different angle. I’m reading Mohan’s book, “Yoga for Body, Breath and Mind” and it’s so good for just that. Loving it.

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