• The pursuit of happiness can leave many of us disappointed, as happy states can be fleeting

  • Therapist Andre de Trichateau argues instead for contentment as a more long-lasting and realistic goal to strive for

  • If you are struggling with a persistent low mood, we have therapists and counsellors available to support you here

“The intention that man should be happy is not in the plan of Creation’ (Civilization and Its Discontents, 1929). Wise words from the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmond Freud. It seems even as early as the 1920s, and probably earlier, people believed they ought to be happy. Freud recognised this need and clearly he thought otherwise. In my practice it is something I have seen and heard many times, especially when people start therapy. They want to be happier.

“I just want to be happier”

We live in a world where we focus so much on what we don’t have and, it would seem, many people feel they do not have happiness in their life. People look for happiness in various places with the hope of finding emotional permanence – be it online, in relationships, in work, through their friends and in therapy. It is as if it can be taught or learnt by simply repeating the mantra: “I have this therefore I should be happy”. When the mantra does not live up to the promise, people feel there is a problem. There is confusion that they somehow are not in possession of this potent emotion that, seemingly, everyone else has. 

What does it even mean to be happy?

How do we measure such a subjective state? Will it be the promotion at work? Our relationship milestones? Maybe having children? Living in a bigger house?  

When I enquire what happiness means to clients, there is often some hesitation – while they think they need to be happy, they have often failed to think about what it really means to be happy. 

They might say “but I used to be happy” or “I had such a happy childhood”. Of course that might be true, but why limit ourselves to just one emotional experience?

We get addicted to the serotonin rush that happiness brings and, like any addiction, we seek it out. We believe it will give us everything that we are lacking. But is it realistic?

When people are suffering from depression, they are stuck in one emotional state that they want to, quite understandably, escape from, but then they want to swap one fixed state with another. 

It seems happiness holds all the answers, but is this a case of trying to unlock a door with the wrong key?

Of course, happiness is a desirable state; we like to be around people who are happy and who, in turn, make us happy. We feel we become more popular if we are happy and cheerful without any awkward, negative feelings and, whilst few people want to be around miserable people, equally, it is a hard act to follow the perpetually happy. 

But is it realistic to have chase one, quite remote state? How many times in your life you have been really happy? It will probably mirror the amount of times you’ve been really sad.


What then, if not happy?

If we allow ourselves to have the most appropriate emotional response to whatever the situation calls for, we can have an authentic moment, not one we feel we are expected to have. 

Life is so varied, rich and fulfilling; our relationship with life is like any relationship, it can disappoint and well as excite. To live life endlessly searching for happiness, we miss out on vital experiences, lessons and feelings. 

These vital experiences can teach us to grow and mature and have a full-rounded appreciation of the world. If we focus on only one feeling, where do the other, less desirable ones go? Typically, they manifest in difficult-to-manage ways, like envy, rage or depression. 

Our mind wants us to experience real moments with real feelings. If we try to bury the ones we don’t want, they eventually resurface in undesirable ways. This is when people feel they are failing and, usually, marks the point of starting therapy.

Why are we so focused on happiness?

It might be too easy to pick on social media as the cause of all this relentless happiness, with all the well-intentioned but ultimately meaningless quotes on how we should feel and how we should be. It provides a very useful platform to showcase the very best parts of ourselves that we wish to present to the world. People believe the carefully curated version that they see sums up that person’s life and we feel like we are missing out. 

We have been lead to believe that we must, at whatever cost, be happy. There is a subtle shaming to not being happy, like you're not part of the club and – as we are mostly social beings – we want to conform. If we don’t it becomes dangerous and if we are not then we have missed out, and we might not be a fully-functioning person. But, this denies the reality of a complex life and anyone who limits themselves to the pursuit of happiness can only have a limited outlook on the world. Perhaps a more optimal state is to find contentment? 

So, how can we be unhappy? 

I started with Freud and I will end with Freud. In his even earlier book Studies on Hysteria (1895), he said: "Much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your neurotic misery into ordinary unhappiness".  It would appear that, even in the absence of social media, people in the late 19th century also believed they ought to be happy.

So, is Freud suggesting that we actually just need to be content? Maybe this is slightly more achievable than always feeling happy. Contentment is the compromising emotion. It is neither black nor white, neither happy nor sad; maybe we need to become more comfortable with these shades of grey?

Andre de Trichateau is a verified Welldoing therapist in South West London and online

Further reading

How to manage feeling sad

What's your anger trying to tell you?

Why a compassionate approach to living with anxiety is key

Why can't I control my feelings?

Anxiety: when does a normal emotional become a problem?