The Problem With “Being Happy”

November 01, 2021

Sarah Goody (she/her/hers) is a 16-year-old climate activist and founder of Climate NOW. Climate NOW is an international youth-led organization focused on educating and empowering young people to take climate action. Climate NOW was founded in 2019, and has since worked with over 10,000 youth and presented to over 70 K-12 schools from around the world. Outside of Climate NOW, Sarah volunteers as the Chair of her town’s Climate Action Committee and works to draw attention to the parallels between mental health and advocacy work. Learn more about Climate NOW at

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“Just be happy.” In theory it sounds simple. Easy to do. Happiness is talked about as if it is a prescription you can pick up at your local pharmacy. Or a package you can order from Amazon. The scary part? For the longest time I thought this was true. I thought happiness was a light switch I could flip in my brain. So when things didn’t change, when I didn’t feel “happy,” I thought there was something wrong with me.

But the thing is, you can’t just be happy. Happiness isn’t something that you can turn on like a light bulb, it’s something unpredictable, abstract, and changes from day to day. The key to happiness is not always a mindset change of “being happy.” Instead, it’s usually a longer journey of self-discovery and self-awareness. Therefore, it can be problematic when we surround ourselves and our communities with messages like, “be happy” or “happiness is a choice you make every day” without providing more context as to how to accomplish that.

But, what is happiness? For someone like me, it was hard enough to comprehend what happiness is, let alone understand how to be happy. The thing is, there is no clear definition of happiness, because it looks different for everyone. For one person, happiness might be a feeling of productiveness and success. For others, it might be a feeling of deep relaxation and zen. Or maybe it’s something less concrete. For me, happiness seems to be less a feeling of joy, and more a feeling of being aware of my surroundings and feeling appreciated in my own community. So how can we generalize happiness and encourage others to be happy when that looks different for every person?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t encourage each other to live our best lives and enjoy the present moment; instead, I’m recommending that we move away from the cliche concept of trying to be happy and move toward a world where we work to find excitement, humor, and peace in the activities we pursue daily. Perhaps, simply talking more openly about the pursuit of happiness and creating dialogue around self-improvement can change the way we view life itself. And maybe it is then that we will discover this feeling of joy and meaning that we have been so eager to find.

So today I challenge you to think about what happiness looks like for you. I challenge you to think up your own definition of happiness. Happiness is not straightforward, but with self-reflection and a passion for improving your mental health, you may be able to uncover what the idea of happiness means to you.

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