Disclaimer: Everything mentioned in this article is outside the context of mental illness.
This might be the most overused empty one-liner in the history of social media. I may have thrown it around a few times here and there, but I repent. If I’ve ever said this line without any explanation, please accept my apology.
Most one-liners are empty phrases that only sound meaningful and profound—that’s no surprise, we see them every day on social media (and hear them from politicians, celebrities, etc.). Today, I want to tackle this one because it’s one that when it is thrown out there, people overwhelmingly respond with how “inspirational” it is, and I’ve probably heard it a million times these past months. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against happiness. The problem (like most problems) is not that the statement is wrong. The problem is that it’s too shallow. It needs more depth.
Here’s why the phrase “do what makes you happy” is empty.
It can mean pretty much anything you want it to mean, which means it has no meaning. Nah mean?
It’s intent is usually to inspire someone to be happy, but it can also be an encouragement to do unhelpful things. Extreme examples? Drugs. I’m so happy when I’m high. Divorce. I’m in an “unhappy marriage” and I need to leave it to be happy. Quitting my job. Work stinks. There’s no encouragement to do anything noble or heroic. The only encouragement is to do whatever you want to do. I don’t know about you, but “whatever I want to do” is more often selfish than heroic, and we don’t need anymore selfishness in the world.
Also, I just don’t understand why people react to it as if it’s some new outlook on life. Everyone in their right mind already knows this. Everyone in their right mind is already trying to do what will make them happy. It’s natural. It’s good. No one grows up thinking, “hmm.. what should I do today that’ll make me sad?” This “do what makes you happy” adds little to nothing to our lives.
In our search for happiness, there are two main problems (at least that I can identify): 1) our constraints in life and 2) that we might not know what makes us happy.
Let me explain.
Our constraints in life
Our life situation is mostly uncontrollable. We don’t get to choose what family we’re born into, if we even get born into a family. We don’t get to choose whether we are a boy or a girl (believe it or not). We don’t get to choose our initial poverty level, our culture, our location, our appearance. A LOT of aspects of our lives are uncontrollable and they can act as constraints that stop us from doing what we think will make us happy.
Sometimes the cards that we’re dealt don’t allow us to do what we think will make us happy. And the “do what makes you happy” phrase doesn’t solve that problem. It could even make it worse!
Unfortunately, some people are born into extreme poverty. So a YouTuber getting in front of a camera showing his or her travels around the world spouting the mantra “do what makes you happy” may look wonderfully inspiring to some, it might just make happiness look even more unattainable to those living in extreme poverty.
Which brings us to the 2nd problem: We often don’t know what makes us happy.
We tend to think that if it feels good, it’ll make us happy. The problem is that things that will make us incredibly miserable often feel really good at the beginning. In short, we tend to do the things that will make us miserable because we think it’ll make us happy. Need examples?: drugs, alcohol, eating unhealthy, etc.
Also, I’ve come across so many fellow young men and women who just don’t know what they want in life. What if there are more than one option that we think will make us happy?
“Should I choose the job that will allow financial security to my family? Or should I choose the job that I will enjoy more?”
“Well, do what makes you happy.”
“They BOTH will make me happy!”
“Sorry, can’t help ya there”
And then there’s that feeling that “I’ve done everything I could think of to make me happy, but something is still missing” feeling. (Who can relate?! Anyone?)
“Well, do what makes you happy.”
“I DID, and I’m STILL not happy.”
“Sorry, can’t help ya there.”
I thought about it for a few days, and I actually can’t think of a situation where “Do what makes you happy” is a solution to a problem or at least helpful, but I came close to thinking of one: Maybe if someone wanted to do something, but is too scared to do it.
“I’ve always wanted to learn how to play the violin, but I’m scared I might fail”
“Do what makes you happy”
“Hey, you’re right! I’ll do it!!!”
That sounds pretty good, but… I think a better one-liner for this situation would be something like, “Don’t let fear stop you from doing what makes you happy.” Now THAT has a bit more meaning.
Pretty much, the phrase “do what makes you happy” doesn’t mean anything, so why don’t we start thinking of new mantras that will actually bring some good to our lives. How about this one as a substitute:
“No matter what situation you’re in, you can always find some happiness.”
I believe this is true for every single human in the world. Rich or poor, healthy or sick, no matter your location, no matter your origin, there is always something to be happy about. And I can give you two right now: 1) You are alive and 2) God loves you. And THAT is all you need, but I’m sure that most of you out there can find even more things to be happy about. Someone once told me that God shows us ten-thousand times a day how much he loves us, but if we’re really attentive, we’ll probably only see it once or twice. At the end of the day, happiness is a choice.
So when you’re not feeling happy and you really need to get out of it. Try reminding yourself of the things that you are grateful for—the things that make you happy. Happiness isn’t a reward you get for accomplishing your life goals. Accomplishing life goals might make you happy, but what I’m trying to say is you don’t NEED to accomplish anything to be happy. It may sound pretty harsh, but there are people out there who may never accomplish the goals that they set for themselves, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a way to be happy.
Here’s a video I made as sort of a teaser to this blog: