When pursuing happiness makes you miserable

Between 2008 and 2015, I went on approximately 130 first dates. A walking millennial stereotype, I met most of my dates online. Doing some rough math, that’s about 16 first dates each year, which means every 3.25 weeks I was learning about (read: stalking online) and then having dinner with someone new.

I rotated through dating sites—Match, OKCupid, Eharmony—and had an almost compulsive relationship with renewing my memberships. It was almost too easy to dream up something new or more perfect I was looking for. After a couple years of online dating, I had earned my “pro” status. I knew how to read between the lines of any profile and concoct an imaginary impression of a person before we’d even met.

A handful of friends coached me about how to dress on a first date; how to be sexy; how to be less like myself (intimidating, serious, businessy) and more like what the guy is looking for (not those things). I underwent several rounds of Cosmo and Sex in the City tutorials before I was pushed and stuffed full of so many contradicting ideas, I didn’t quite know who I was on these dates. But I did know one thing:

Dating was about making me happy.

By 2013 I was a land mine of anxiety and impossible standards. The effects of online dating have actually been documented and studied. It turns out, having thousands of potential suitors creates an imaginary “world of possibilities” for even the serious online dater—and it can subconsciously develop a “never good enough” view of the people they meet. In this alternate reality, humans are easily discarded because, after all, there are 20,000 new members being added to the site daily. 

Happiness no matter the cost

It wasn’t until 2014 did I begin to suspect there were some pretty unsustainable patterns in my dating mindset. If a guy dressed the wrong way on a first date, I’d eliminate him. If he told a joke that wasn’t funny to me, he was a goner. If he showed too much interest, he was too eager. If he was too aloof, he was an asshole. If he had a job that wasn’t in management, he was lazy (buh bye, underachiever!). If he had a job that was in the C-suite, he wasn’t attentive enough. If I felt displeased in any way, I moved on to the next guy because, after all, I deserved to be happy. If he asked a personal question, it was too soon. If he asked about my favorite food, he was a simpleton. Yawn, boring, over, gone.

I was too picky, right? I was single because I wasn’t giving guys a fair chance, right?

The thing is, I was following THE rule.

The Happiness Rule.

According to the Rule, I was entitled to find absolute, unrelenting happiness for myself. No matter the cost. As long as I gently let him down, what’s the harm?

The trouble is that the pursuit of happiness actually made me extremely and absolutely unhappy and dissatisfied with myself and my life.

Calling Bluff on Happiness

At the age of 28 I took a big magnifying glass to all the “rules” in my mind and discovered that I had let happiness make me exempt from being a decent human in the dating world (though I couldn’t see it at the time).

I was single for a reason. I was single because my inner moral compass was completely cut off from my dating life. My faith and my driving values were replaced with a me, mine, and my anthem for six solid years—and it created a pretty hollow living space.

It turns out, this idea that happiness is our highest calling is pretty impossible because happiness is always being replaced by something else.

Nothing remains happy in life—it’s always changing and transforming, just like people.

This was tough to realize. If I was constantly changing and growing, then why didn’t the person across the table at dinner have the same opportunity to have an off night? Men with exceptional hearts can be notoriously “iffy” dressers. Flat jokes can be the result of nervousness, not a character flaw. Eagerly asking questions is a compliment…you’re interesting to him! And being quiet can be a sign that he’s simply a little shy. What I attributed as “deal breaker” activity was oftentimes the result of being human on a date.

I had my wires crossed, to say the least.

Things began to change when I started studying Buddhist principles around suffering. My meditation teacher spoke about relational discomfort-- and how relationships are inherently uncomfortable and trying to make them comfortable is actually what makes us even more miserable. Somewhere in the mix, I pressed a reset button on how I looked at dating, men and myself.

For starters, I had to soften the narrative in my own mind. This meant I had to look at the impossible standards for myself and learn to relax with my own imperfections. Soon this gentler approach began to change the way I saw dating, in general. I realized that I had voraciously consumed online dating’s messages and had forgotten how to be human on dates. This exercise also pointed out to me that I didn’t know how to be myself—the “game” required so much twisting of myself that I had to dial in for a few months and figure out why I was dating in the first place and what I was hoping to accomplish.

Somewhere in this re-centering exercise, I reached a place of ease with myself that I’d never known before. Shortly thereafter, I met my future husband. And that’s when the real discomfort showed up (about two months in). Ha!

He was everything my heart had been secretly hoping for all those years playing the “game.” I knew the first time he made me laugh that something was different. Our honeymoon phase was blissful, but (not surprisingly) eventually we began experiencing those slight pain points. It wasn’t bad behavior and we weren’t mistreating one another. We were simply accustomed to our way of doing things.

I felt the Rule come screaming through my mind fairly often in the first few months. But I like it MY WAY. I want it THIS time and in THAT speed.

In six years of pursuing happiness, I had become accustomed to never being uncomfortable.

For me, discomfort had become a threat to my very being. I blurred the line so easily in the beginning—I wanted to run far away and hide whenever I didn’t get my way. With a deep breath and a moment’s pause I could actually watch myself overreact to the tiniest things. Something had to give. Something deeper needed to be addressed.

What a Buddhist nun has to say about discomfort

I ran across a video clip about a month ago. It’s a teaser for an online course with an American-born Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron. You can watch the whole clip here.

In Buddhism, there’s what they call the Boddhisattva, or a compassion warrior. This is a person who aspires to be beneficial to all beings in the world. No small task, right? Well, the full online course (that the clip is teasing) talks about ways to support that desire. In the clip I linked above, she discusses the three main places we all live at some point:

  • comfort zone

  • discomfort/growth zone

  • trauma zone

When we seek comfort to the exclusion of discomfort, that’s when we actually stop growing (and, by proxy, become miserable because happiness is always coming and going). In discomfort, however, we start to encounter things and environments that give us a chance to become more compassionate (first toward ourselves and then to the world at large). Pema does a great job and goes much more in-depth with the topic, but for me, this is where I’m simmering: on this habit of seeking comfort above all else—and the results of that.

For my dating life and even with some of my friendships, if the relationship/interaction waded too closely to discomfort, I’d jump ship (all in the name of happiness!). It also turns out that discomfort and trauma can be easily (conveniently) confused for one another.

If not happiness, then what?

This is sticky stuff. And I don’t have a clear mind about much of it, but I do know that if I hadn't embraced the natural discomfort in relationships, I would've missed the opportunity to know and eventually marry a man who's teaching me how to stop and smell the roses. 

I also know we’re surrounded by spiritual gurus and writers and social media personalities who all preach ad nauseum about pursuing happiness (or self expression or self creativity or self actualization). And it makes me queasy.  

It makes me uncomfortable because I know that open door. It’s an open door to casually invite people into your life until they're no longer interesting or they become boring or you just feel like moving on.

So what is a truer calling than happiness?

Being useful? Being beneficial? You tell me.