“...and they lived happily ever after.” For many people, this isn’t just a familiar ending to their favorite fairy tale, but rather a life goal. But some people feel that they don’t deserve a happy ever after. Instead, they’ll settle for a “can’t complain” kind of life and think, “I’m not happy, but I’m okay. That’s fine, right?”
It may be fine for a short period of time, but in the long run, settling for less than happiness can affect your health and well-being. I don’t believe that anyone truly wants to settle for less, but feeling guilty or undeserving can get in the way of living your best life, as the kids call it. In order to be truly happy, you have to get over those feelings.
So how do you clear that emotional hurdle in your quest for happiness? In this article, I’ll try to answer that question and show you why you deserve to be happy.
What is happiness, anyway?
That is a hard question to answer, as different disciplines define happiness differently. Even in the field of psychology, some believe that happiness is the abundance of positive and the lack of negative emotions (also known as the hedonistic approach), while others think that happiness is living your life to the fullest, with all the emotions - both positive and negative - that come with it (also known as eudaimonia).
Happiness is also deeply individual. For me, happiness is related to purpose, understanding, and fulfillment - in order to feel truly satisfied, I have to know why I do the things I do. For someone else, happiness may be the feeling of security in a relationship or a hard-won trophy on the shelf. Some people find happiness in the simple act of being alive.
You can pick the approach you like best - hedonistic or eudaimonic - and define your own happiness. It doesn’t matter how you do it, as long as you remember two important things:
- Happiness is a state, not a trait, meaning that it can change and it can be achieved. Very few people are inherently happy; for most, happiness is a combination of experiences, emotions, and appraisals.
- Happiness is not a binary phenomenon, it’s a spectrum. Maybe you feel a little less happy today than you did yesterday, but it doesn’t mean that you are now unhappy.
Do I deserve to be happy?
It’s a common view that you have to earn your happy ever after. The fact of the matter is that you have already earned it, just by being human.
Nearly everyone will agree that everybody deserves to be healthy. In fact, healthy is the default state for human beings. We don’t talk about achieving or earning good health. The feelings of happiness, satisfaction and well-being are all a part of mental health and should be the norm.
However, we’ve got things a bit backward. Being stressed and unhappy seems to be the norm; happiness is a reward for hard work. Here’s how it should be:
“Happiness is its own reward.”
Research has shown that happy people are healthier and more productive, achieving more. Achievement in a field that is important to you promotes feelings of fulfillment and satisfaction, thus creating more happiness. It’s a positive feedback loop.
If you don’t believe that you deserve happiness, then think of it this way: a happier you can be more helpful to others and give back more to the community. You deserve to be happy because your happiness will help others.
The things that get in the way of happiness
There are numerous obstacles on the way to happiness. Some are situational, like financial or career-related factors. The old adage about money not buying happiness is only true if you already have enough of it; for others, financial security is an important contributor to happiness.
Other obstacles are emotional. Guilt, self-criticism or feeling undeserving are all common hurdles that are hard to overcome.
Firstly, we all have moments that we aren’t proud of. Maybe you hurt someone or told a lie, maybe you made a mistake or messed up a big project. By sticking on to these negative experiences and beating yourself up about them, you’re diminishing your ability to feel happiness.
Secondly, feeling guilty can be one of the biggest barriers to happiness and it can come in many forms. When my aunt passed away a few years ago, I was overcome by guilt because I hadn’t been very close to her while she was alive. This guilt lengthened my grieving process because I was so focused on the missed opportunities to build a closer relationship with her.
At the same time, my mother was dealing with survivors’ guilt: my uncle had passed a couple of years before my aunt, and my mom, the eldest of her siblings, was the last one alive. As we grieved together, it quickly became clear that neither of us would be moving on until we had addressed the guilt rather than the grief. My mother went to a counselor and I went to my aunt’s grave to tell her everything I wanted her to know. Only then did we start to move on.
Thirdly, some people may also feel guilty because if others aren’t happy, they have no right to be, either. This feeling is sometimes brought on by the well-meaning exclamation of “Some people have it worse than you!”. In general, comparing yourself to others is a perfect recipe for lower self-esteem and diminished happiness.
How to overcome these obstacles
If you feel that you don’t deserve happiness, here are some ways to combat the guilt and other obstacles on your way to become a happier, more fulfilled version of yourself.
1. Define happiness
Remember how happiness is deeply personal? In order to pursue it, you have to define what happiness means to you. Your personal definition of happiness can also help you understand why you feel undeserving of it.
For example, if happiness is all about relationships to you, you may find that you are stuck on the mistakes you may have made in previous relationships. Understanding this can help you make peace with them and move on.
2. Find closure
If you feel guilty about something you did - or didn’t do - seek to make amends. Apologize or say the words you’ve always wanted to say, either in person or in a letter. You won’t even have to send the letter, just getting the words out of your head and onto the paper can help.
I was seeking closure by going to my aunt’s grave after her passing, and it helped me to let go and move on.
3. Exchange the self-criticism for acceptance
No one is perfect. By expecting perfection of yourself, you’re limiting your chances to be happy. Instead of beating yourself down for every mistake or perceived flaw, accept them as a part of yourself.
You may think that you’ll never be happy because you’re not beautiful or smart enough. When you start your journey towards happiness, you may think that you can be happy despite not being beautiful or smart enough.
What you need to realize is that you can be happy because you are you and you are human. Your appearance and intelligence have nothing to do with this.
4. Accept your decisions and actions
We’ve all made some bad decisions, but we only call them bad because we have the gift of hindsight. Knowing what I know now, I would have never dyed my hair black in 8th grade, but at the time, it felt like the best idea.
When people make decisions, they always pick what is the best option at the time. I have never met anyone who knowingly picked the worst option based on the information they had.
You are no exception. Accept that you acted on your best knowledge at the time, even if it turned out to be a mistake (it took me a year to grow out the uneven black dye). Let go of your regrets and move on.
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Happiness is its own reward and every human being deserves to feel fulfilled and satisfied.
For some, feelings of guilt and unworthiness may get in the way of happiness, and they can be very difficult to overcome. However, by examining your own ideas of happiness and the feelings that are holding you back, you can overcome these obstacles and create a happier life for yourself, because you deserve it.