The Pursuit of Happiness


The New Year often sparks reflections and resolution for new beginnings, highlighting desires to continue or change patterns in life. Within new year resolutions and new beginnings, there may be a desire for increased joy and happiness, begging question such as,  “What is happiness? What does a happy life look like?” These questions and thoughts, as I evaluate my New Year and consider the story of those around me, led to further exploration.

To be honest, happiness has a slightly negative association  in my mind, conjuring words that indicate happiness as “shallow, not reliable, fleeting…” Pondering the questions posed above, I read  various author’s understandings of happiness. This expanded, or at least questioned, how I define and think of happiness. Happiness could be conceptualized as the emotional result or outcome of of engaging in various internal and external factors: relationships, activities and adopting a lifestyle that is in line with one’s unique identity. Dr. Caroline Leaf, a cognitive neuroscientist essentially concludes that when one is in line with their identity, purpose and community - happiness is experienced - and this is a joyful experience . The feeling of happiness can indicate and reveal what external factors/relationships/community cultivate inner satisfaction for each unique person. Although happiness is not always experienced or felt, happiness can indicate the unique interests, desires and identity of a specific individual.

Dr. Caroline Leaf explains the struggle to find happiness if one has not found their identity. Some individuals struggle to experience happiness because they simply do not know what they like, or who they are. Dr. Leaf states, “happiness has more to do with a sense of inner satisfaction than external consumption,” explaining that happiness is not based on circumstances and is not necessarily devoid of sadness or grief.

Happiness, instead, Dr. Leaf states, is “ the joy we have living the “meaningful, good life,” and revolves around our ability to choose to focus on the positive, to connect with others, and to have meaningful relationships in a community. Happiness is knowing where we belong and knowing why we are alive, regardless of what is going on in our life.”

Happiness is a way of being, it is a journey; it does not necessitate perfection. Dr. Leaf explains that happiness, “does not come from getting; rather it is based on giving and understanding yourself and your unique mind.” A happy life is a life consistent with one’s identity, and this attainment of happiness can co-exist with difficult circumstances or emotions. As mentioned earlier, while joy can be experienced without happiness, happiness may be a helpful tool that indicates how one is uniquely created. It begs the question, “How am I uniquely created? When do I feel happy and have joy? What does this indicate about my identity? What do I simply enjoy doing?”  

The “Happiness Trap”, a concept within Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT), defines two types of happiness: the first is the feeling of pleasure which can easily come and go and the second defines happiness as experiencing a rich, meaningful life. The “trap” references the expectation and pursuit of happiness as a trap when disappointment of failed expectations or happy pursuits leads to depression and anxiety. Embracing a variety of comfortable and uncomfortable emotions in the midst of a meaningful, rich life, ultimately leads to happiness, according to ACT.  

True happiness is nurtured in a life that brings meaning and significance.

Joy learns to seek out what brings fulfillment and purpose to the individual, based on their unique created identity. Happiness is not necessarily a reliable emotion; it is variant to life circumstances; and yet happiness is an emotion to honor as it highlights unique aspects of personhood. How can you cultivate rich and meaningful experiences this New Year? How do you define happiness and joy and how do these definitions influence expectations of a “happy or fulfilling life?”


Victoria Barrett is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor passionate about coming alongside you in your journey toward a life of greater healing, joy and abundance. Victoria uses various expressive and creative therapies to aid her clients in healing from trauma, adjustment disorders, attachment issues, anxiety, depression, and more.
Victoria also loves adventure in the great outdoors, in cooking, in traveling and in discovering good live music.  Click here to learn more about working with Victoria.

Victoria Barrett, MA, LMHC