This past year, I began my journey to become a life coach. After completing my training, I was excited to continue learning. My goal was (and remains) to learn as much as possible in order to help my clients achieve their goals, be their best selves, and—ultimately—be happier. And so, I began by focusing on the subject of happiness and how to achieve it. 

Attempting to find the definition of happiness proved exhausting. Though a societal buzzword, its meaning remains ambiguous. Common definitions iterate a variation of “the quality or state of being happy.” 

Unsatisfied, I dug deeper. Psychologist and author of The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky, defines happiness as, “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” 

However, Lyubomirsky’s definition is merely one researcher’s take. As it turns out, experts in the field view happiness differently. Some define it as a collection of numerous emotional reactions over time, while others describe it as a recalling of past emotional experiences. And to further complicate matters, it is often used interchangeably with other phrases, such as “the science of well-being.” Ultimately, what became clear in all of this is the absence of a concrete definition and understanding of happiness, arguably the most desired life experience.

As I continued my journey down the happiness rabbit hole, my relationship to happiness changed. It occurred after I completed two different baseline happiness assessments, both of which found my happiness to be below average. In disbelief, I retook them (multiple times). Yet, the outcomes were exactly the same. I felt defeated and a bit confused.

After some time and reflection, I realized the results were accurate—I’m not a super happy person. And most surprisingly of all, I’m okay with that. As a person with anxiety, I may not fit the defined happiness markers that these surveys test for. In the end, I find it hard to be upset that I am below average on the happiness scale when I am above average on my personal happiness journey.

I now find myself questioning this elusive quest for happiness. Why is happiness the gold standard? Why not contentment, self-understanding, or emotional intelligence? These may not be as sexy as happiness, but aren’t they more stable and less evasive?

According to research, 50% of happiness is determined by genetics, 10% is circumstantial, and 40% is within our control. Additional research has zeroed in to figure out what influences our happiness. Many of the trending self-care practices such as gratitude journaling, meditation, and savoring have come about as proven ways to increase happiness, by creating a richer, more experiential life and teaching us to stay present. These practices help to counteract hedonic adaptation, the very thing that keeps happiness elusive. 

For anyone unfamiliar with the term, hedonic adaptation is the general tendency to return to one’s individual happiness set point. This is the natural adjustment to things that quickly bring a high amount of joy such as a raise or a new car. Initially our happiness levels spike, but we eventually adapt to our new situation, returning to our individual baseline. 

With positivity exercises trending, there needs to be a simultaneous discussion of negative emotions and their importance. Negative emotions deliver valuable information and should not be pushed aside for the sake of silver linings. Toxic positivity enters where a lack of emotional knowledge persists. An unwillingness to experience negativity can create isolation and disconnection.

Rather than happiness, I propose the pursuit of emotional intelligence and true self-understanding. Insight into your emotions enables you to separate yourself from them. It allows you to respond rather than react, benefiting your relationships and increasing your self-awareness. Furthermore, knowing who you are at your core enables you to build a life that is meaningful to you. Combined these tools empower you to navigate life with clarity and purpose. That way when a couple of surveys determine you’re below average on the happiness scale, you’ll be okay—confident in who you are and the life you are intentionally creating.