One of my best friends in college loved the saying, “Happiness is like a butterfly. The more you chase it, the more it flies away.” I think most of us can relate to this sentiment. Finding happiness has been a topic of study and debate for centuries from Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas to Benjamin Franklin to modern writers such as Gretchen Rubin. We all want to be happy, but most of us find it to be elusive. Still, we think of being happy as an essential ingredient for living a fulfilling and meaningful life. So we ask ourselves: What’s the secret to finding happiness?
But maybe we’re asking the wrong question.
Often in our quest to find happiness, we focus so much on the promise of happiness in the future that we forget joy can be found in the small everyday moments of our present life. We expect happiness to hit us like a lightning bolt one day, and from then on, we won’t have to work at cultivating happiness ever again. It will be smooth sailing after that, we think, and then we can sail through life in a happy, blissful state. Along with this, we often ascribe happiness as the end result of finally securing enough of something. For example, we tell ourselves that making a certain amount of money, having a certain type of house, being in a certain type of relationship are the ingredients of a happy life. We’ll say, “Once I’m married, I’ll be happy,” or, “Once I’m a senior-level manager, I’ll be happy.” But most of the time, these things don’t turn out to be the magical ingredient for happiness.
This passive and binary approach to happiness is frustrating because it’s an all-or-nothing perspective. Either we’re completely and blissfully happy, or we’re not. And it’s often the latter.
As a therapist, I can share with you some sound advice. Instead of searching for happiness, like it’s buried treasure and you just need the right map in order to find it, try thinking about it as something that is already all around you—you just need the right perspective to illuminate it. Focusing on identifying the small moments of joy in your everyday life is more fulfilling. This shift in mindset acknowledges happiness for what it is: an active and constant process. Happiness is something you have to seek every day and cultivate because, as much as we hope for it, there’s no one X that marks the spot.
Remember the “Happiness is like a butterfly” quote? If you want to attract butterflies to your garden, you have to grow the plants that butterflies are attracted to. Similarly, happiness remains elusive until you cultivate your life and environment to foster conditions favorable to happiness. Seeking those small moments of joy that are happening in your life right now is the way to do this.
For example, Verily’s CEO Kara Eschbach once shared how transformative it was to embrace her single life and the joy that was right in front of her instead of putting her life on hold, waiting to meet her future husband. She described how believing that only once she was married would she be happy was making her miserable in her current life. But letting go of that belief and choosing to focus on the good that was happening in her life right now made her much more fulfilled.
Rubin, in both The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, focuses on cultivating happiness through different areas of her life. She started a children’s literature book club because she enjoyed reading children’s books. She created photo albums, so she could flip through the photos of her family that brought her joy. She made a display in her house of objects that brought her joy. She focused on making small changes in her everyday life to increase her chances at discovering consistent happiness.
Like Kara and Gretchen, you can focus on opportunities for joy that are in your life right now. And, if you struggle to find them, create those opportunities. For example, maybe you can listen to your favorite podcast or album in the morning while you’re getting ready. Or maybe you can schedule a standing coffee date with friends for a mid-week pick-me-up. Maybe it’s as simple as appreciating the beautiful sunset or skyline of the city you live in. There’s joy to be found in your life right now. You just have to look for it. Seeking to find joy in the small moments of the day is the secret to living your most fulfilling life right now instead of waiting for happiness to magically appear in your life.