Why Happiness Isn’t Always Comfortable

Most of us believe that happiness comes from living a stress-free life. But our greatest challenges may hold the secret to uncovering our greatest joys, writes Elaine Smookler.

Thuddd. That was the sound my body made when it slammed against the mat.

Along with being a mindfulness teacher and psychotherapist, I am also an actor. Once upon a time, much to everyone’s surprise, I was hired with no prior experience to do a stunt in a commercial. I had to launch myself off a trampoline and appear to fly across a table as I plucked a pear from someone’s hand. The stunt ends with a face-plant on a thin mat. At first, I felt insecure and uneasy. But with the promise of a paycheck and a healthy dose of curiosity compelling me forward, I dove in, literally and figuratively. By the end of the rehearsal I was covered with bruises—and I felt great! I had pushed far beyond my skill set and comfort level. It took grit, determination, and surrender, and I was, for a brief moment, a stunt actor. I’d never been happier. 

When I was younger and I imagined finding happiness, body slams for a TV commercial is not what came to mind. I was sure happiness would be the by-product of becoming an award-winning actor who was gorgeous, rich, and adored, living a life of luxury and ease. Sigh. It does sound pretty good. As it turns out, between working as an independent artist for decades, going through cancer, facing my credit card bills, and dealing with all the little pains and strains of being human, my life hasn’t been all that comfortable.

In all my years, through all the ups and downs,I’ve come to one conclusion about happiness: Most of the time, a truly happy life includes a healthy amount of discomfort.

Yet, when I look back on the moments when I’ve been happiest, they haven’t been times when life felt effortless and simple, but moments when I have met challenges and come out the other side. From moving to a new city to training as a psychotherapist, angst and difficulty have often led me to richness and fulfillment. In all my years, through all the ups and downs,I’ve come to one conclusion about happiness: Most of the time, a truly happy life includes a healthy amount of discomfort.

The pursuit of happiness is considered an inalienable right. The conundrum, however, is how hard it can be to recognize what will bring us lasting happiness, and what that happiness will even look like. With many of us drowning in errands, bills, work, emails, and all the other to-do-list items that seem to magically appear each day, it’s easy to assume happiness springs from a life free of challenges and stress. But often what prevents us from being happy is that we would much rather not have to deal with uncomfortable experiences, which—let’s face it—we can’t really avoid. Life offers up ample rough patches, from broken hearts to busted knees.

Discomfort and difficulty are inevitable. Can we try to be happy—or at least OK—with whatever comes our way? 

I like to think that difficulties are like fiber in our diets: They keep our systems moving and processing everything we take in. We need to take on challenges in order to feel alive, and, ultimately, to feel fulfilled and happy. And don’t worry, challenges will come for us all.

In my psychotherapy practice, part of the goal of therapy, and potentially the path to happier-ness, is helping clients turn with curiosity toward people, events, or situations that they experience as difficult. For some, this might mean simply washing their dishes, walking a few feet out of their front door, or going to a family dinner. For others it might mean sitting silently for a few minutes without the TV on. Turning toward whatever we are avoiding or dreading can be game-changing. When we meet and greet our discomfort, we gradually learn that our lives are OK as they are. Over time, and with practice, this helps us build resilience, allowing us to face bigger and less predictable challenges with equanimity and curiosity.

By seeing life’s challenges as our daily dose of roughage, they can become part of our happiness, as opposed to being obstacles in the way. There will always be unpleasant stuff mixed in with the pleasant. Embracing that, we can find confidence, strength, and happiness born of welcoming our whole lives—bumps, bruises, and all.