Clinging to Happiness Leads to More Anxiety

Expert anxiety counseling in Woodland Hills

Christina Barber-Addis, Psy.D.

I recently visited the island of Kauai for a vacation. It was my first trip to Hawaii and the first vacation I had taken in a few years. I remember throughout those five months after booking the trip, I would think about the trip constantly, dreaming about the fun and relaxation that I would experience. When things would get stressful or overwhelming, I would remind myself that more happiness was on the way, in the form of an awesome vacation. And especially as the vacation neared, I found myself becoming more and more impatient with my current workload and daily tasks, dreaming for my vacation to take me away from it. 

Then I went on my vacation and had a wonderful time. But I noticed, underneath the joy, there was this underlying anxiety and agitation that my vacation experience didn’t compare to my expectation of how I thought it would be. In fact, the first few days of the vacation, I actually felt more anxious than prior to arriving. This puzzled me, but in looking back, I think it was because of my unrealistic expectation of the vacation transporting me away from my problems. My expectation was that my time in Kauai would be life-altering and take all my cares away. Of course, this wasn’t the case. All of my troubles and challenges that I had prior to my vacation, travelled on that plane along with me. 

After returning home, the disappointment continued because life threw its many wrenches at me almost as soon as the plane landed. Work was slow, leading to financial woes and the stress of our bathroom remodel reared it’s ugly head. I remember thinking, “Great, I guess all the good from the vacation is cancelled out since I can’t savor the moment. I’m thrown back into the real world again.” But, is this how it should be? Should we expect the joy from a vacation to last beyond our returning home? Are we then clinging to happiness well past its expiration date?

My biggest realization in all of this was that I wasn’t being present in my experience. The expectations and constant comparisons between “real life” and my time on vacation pulled me away from being fully immersed and present in my experience, before, during and after the vacation. What might my experience have been like if I were to allow it all in, the challenges and the joys, equally? What if I had little expectation, but rather, curiosity about my vacation and allow the joy and fun to rise and pass without judgment? All I know is that clinging to happiness only added to my anxiety. 

So how do we do this? How do we not cling to happiness? It is natural to be excited about an upcoming exciting event or vacation. But perhaps when we notice ourselves pulling away from our present experience, even when it is unpleasant, we can notice this and come back to the task at hand. Although not as exciting as the dreamy expectation of the future excitement, we are potentially preventing the anxiety that will come from the expectation that we will be saved from our present challenges. In turn, we can notice when we are being pulled away from joy by the thought of its inevitable end and just feel it, giving ourselves the gift of being present in our lives, right now, in this moment. 

Dr. Christina Barber-Addis is the founder of New Awakenings Therapy and is a mindfulness-based, licensed psychologist in private practice in Woodland Hills, California. She specializes in treating adults with anxiety by incorporating mindfulness meditation into her therapy practice.