Living in misery: how our idea of happiness could be doing us more harm than good

When I was a teenager, me and my friend Kate used to hang out and be miserable. It was like our raison d’être.

It was sometimes accompanied by melancholic Indie music, or romantic films, and sometimes just talk about how we wished things could be. She used to laugh at me because I made her do cassette tape recordings to our future selves. I briefly listened to some in my early twenties, before chucking them out. They were dreary as hell. They mainly consisted of me listing things my future self must be doing by now, or being impressed by this adult version of myself who must be so together and have it all.

The things we longed for, and believed would make us happy, included being more attractive; having loads of fun times with a gang of cool friends (critically, this needed to include both boys and girls); romance and sex. Although we didn’t articulate it, we truly believed that these things could deliver us the most wonderful heightened feelings of happiness.

To long for something is a weird combination of self-indulgence and self-flagellation. And this bitter-sweet thrill is addictive. Our happiness was on hold while we indulged our imagined happiness, and all we wanted was to work to attain these things.

Over time, I realised that the things I’d wanted, when realised, did not live up to the idea. Things like adoration, admiration, protection, success, popularity are potent and tantalising in their appeal. But they do not take us to some higher level of happiness. In fact they barely make us happy at all. And our high expectations can leave us disappointed.

We cannot expect a partner to be a charmer, or a princess. While the beginning is an exciting time, a relationship is the coming together of two complicated and multi-faceted human beings. We have to allow them to be the complete person that they are, not a two-dimensional idea. And a partner should only ever be a companion as two people both make individual journeys through life.

Similarly, good company is a precious and rewarding thing, but we should not need friends go validate us. Not having friends is just the way it is sometimes – for whatever reason. And it is not the end of the world. There are people who have tons of friends but never feel secure. The actual challenge is not attainment of friends, it is managing to take control of your life and finding ways to enjoy it for what it is and for yourself.

Looking good might give you a buzz but it won’t make you feel differently about yourself deep down. And what makes you appealing and attractive to others has a lot more to do with personality than we admit. For instance, someone who is good at flirting and making people laugh will get a lot of interest, almost regardless of looks. It’s charisma that matters most.

The irony is that when you stop trying to be more attractive/successful/popular – when that is not your goal – others may well start to find you more attractive/successful/popular because you don’t care; you’re not looking for their approval and you’re self-assurance is intriguing.

So watch out – our own human nature can trick us and make us think we want something which isn’t even real. Worse still, by seeking happiness in the wrong things, we miss out on what real happiness is. Real happiness comes from acceptance, self-sufficiency and honest observation. And it’s actually much more rewarding because it has no highs and lows. It is stable, balanced and reassuring.