Why we resist things we know will make us happy + What to do about it

Do you resist happiness or put off doing things you KNOW will make you happy? So many of us do this! Click through to find out why + how to stop!

30 minutes across town happiness is waiting for me.

In this case, it takes the form of a dance class filled with The Perfect Playlist,  women I like, and a teacher I adore. I HAVE ALREADY PAID FOR IT and every class I miss is a $20 bill I’m starting on fire and waving in the air.

And yet! Even though I know this class will make me happy, even though I’ve already paid for it, instead of going I’m … not. I’m saying “Hey, Happiness! I see you over there, waving frantically. I see you and Imma opt to sit here in my dirty yoga pants and watch Parks And Rec reruns instead of hanging out with you.”

Have you ever done this? If you’re a human who is alive, I’m pretty sure you have.

If you haven’t, will you teach me your ways?

There are all sorts of reasons we resist doing things that make us happy. Just like anything, when we notice what we’re doing and start to understand why, we’re a million times more likely to change our habits.

4 reasons we resist happiness + what we can do about it

We resist happy-making activities because sometimes they’re really hard

Well, obviously, right? Getting up early so you’ll have time to writing your morning pages = hard. Finding the courage to leave the job you hate = hard. Mustering the time, energy, and interest to regularly work out = hard. Living on a tight budget now so you can afford your dream house later = hard.

It’s just SO MUCH EASIER to sleep in, to workout twice on the weekends, to convince ourselves that job satisfaction is laughable myth created by idealistic millennials.* And rather than doing the hard, hard happy-making stuff we settle for the band-aid, just-for-now happy-makers. (I’m looking at you, Netflix and Anthropologie sale section.)

*it’s not.

What we can do about it

Acknowledge that what we’re doing is hard! Let’s stop downplaying the effort that goes into a successful business, a career transition, changing our health habits, or a huge trip. Downplaying the effort that goes into our accomplishments serves no one.

When someone ask you about your daily running habit or the novel you’re writing, say “Sometimes it’s really hard, but it makes me happy and it’s always worth it.” When you’re struggling to lace up your shoes at 5 am, remind yourself “I can do hard things.”

We resist happy-making activities because the default is easier

You guys? Sometimes happiness is a hassle. I know that trying weird, challenging new recipes with my husband makes me happy. But when faced with a pile of unknown cookbooks, a 23-item ingredient list, and instructions that feature French verbs, I’m inclined to throw up my hands and
scream “Cereal buffet!”

So many of the things that make me happy are logistically cumbersome: International travel, weekends away with big groups of friends, buying pretty much anything from Craigslist. So often it feels easier to quietly opt-out.

If I’m not careful, I  can convince myself that dinner with friends is as good as three days of memory-making on the lake with board games and a rickety pontoon. I can talk myself into thinking my bargain-getting needs can be met at Ikea rather than the ‘between $50-$75’ Craigslist searches. (Spoiler alert: They cannot.)

I imagine I’m not alone here. How often do we default to the easy/familiar/slightly mediocre because the truly wonderful would require a week of planning and talking on the phone to strangers?  

What we can do about it

As deeply, deeply cheesy as it sounds, when I’m in midst of doing a hassle-filled, happy-making thing, I say to myself “This makes me happy.” I’m sticking a pin in the map of my happiness and saying “Here. X marks the spot and I’m glad I made the effort to get here.”

When we note these happy-making things, we’re literally strengthening the pathways in our brains and making it easier to find our way back here.

We resist happy-making activities because they don’t fit with our ideas about who we are

True Story: a dear friend of mine is an Ivy League-educated academic. She’s constantly presenting impressive things at conferences and making theoretical arguments I 100% do not understand. She also looooooves the Real Housewives reality tv franchise.

I have been friends with this woman for 15 years. The first Real Housewives debuted 10 years ago. I only learned of my friend’s affinity for this show four months ago. That’s almost a decade that she’s been hiding something that brought her joy! 10 years she could have been watching this show with friends and happily dissecting Bethenny’s romantic choices!

But she didn’t want anybody to know because she thought this happy didn’t take the shape it ‘should.’ She thought ‘someone like her’ shouldn’t enjoy ‘something like that.’ And when she made the decision, she opted out of a more than a decade of happiness and fun.

What we can do about it

None of us are walking around with name tags affixed to our shirts broadcasting our hobbies, interests, or the things that make us happy. If something brings us joy, nobody is going to know unless we tell them.

And if we do tell them and they judge us, well, they’re probably not someone we need in our lives. The more you like your decision, the less it matters if other people do. Share on X

We resist happy-making activities because they make other people uncomfortable

Let’s say you’re a tightly wound, pearls-and-sweater set, PTA mom-type. Now let’s say your biggest joy in life is your burlesque class, particularly the routines that feature a bit of ass-slapping and Marilyn Manson. The people in your life might be less-than-100% comfortable with this.

Or let’s say you’re the very beloved only child of two very doting, slightly neurotic parents. Rock climbing makes the blood sing in your veins and it makes your dad yell in your voicemail. Anytime they see your harness or chalk bag, you get a glare. Anytime they hear about an upcoming climbing trip, you get a guilt trip.

When the people in our lives – people who love us! people who usually have our best interest at heart! – aren’t comfortable or supportive of what makes us happy it’s easy to abandon it.

What we can do about it

Know that being uncomfortable never killed anyone. It won’t kill you to feel a little awkward when other PTA moms heard you take burlesque classes. Your mom won’t die when she sees photos of you at the climbing gym. As long as you’re not hurting anyone, you’re allowed to do what makes you happy.

How often do you resist doing things you know will make you happy? Why do you think you do that?

P.S. Did you know I have a (free) private Facebook group dedicated solely to the topics of money and happiness? And the stuff we talk about has helped members change jobs, save thousands of dollars, and fight less with their partners? Join us!

Photo by Paul Green on Unsplash

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  1. Melissa

    This is such a perfectly timed post for me. I recently started looking for jobs abroad because traveling and exploring new places makes me happy. But it’s hard to step outside of that comfort zone of knowing I’m good at my current job. But I’m in a good place in my life to live abroad for a few years, so I decided to do it!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      So glad to hear it, Melissa! <3

  2. Bun

    I’m going to be the jerk that points out that cat-hair-covered yoga pants make me happy. (And snarkily pointing that out also makes me happy.) BUT! Message received! The point isn’t what makes you happy, it’s that you do that thing, whatever it is. I’m going to spend part of my weekend driving 12 hours round trip to spend a day with my college buddies, and another part of it watching Parks & Rec for the first time in my hotel room before they get to town and after they leave. And that makes me happy!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Yes! We all have different things that make us happy and some days yoga pants make ME happy, too!

  3. Stephanie

    You’re the best, Sarah!! Sometimes I feel like you’re living in my brain – I’ve been thinking so much about these topics lately. I definitely need to remember that I have to put in effort to reap big rewards. And I love that phrase “memory-making” – I think that alone will help me overcome this tendency..or at least I hope so!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      So glad you found it helpful, Stephanie!

  4. Julia

    I’m a statistician and data person by training but I’ve always kept my “hippy” side hidden because I didn’t think it would be accepted. I’m starting to explore the possibility of going to massage school so I can be full on hippy full time and the idea of being my true self all the time makes my heart sing. I still feel shame when I think about telling coworkers that that’s what I’m going to leave my well paying job to do, but again, the thought of being happy every day would override the shame for sure!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      I love that, Julia! Best of luck! <3

  5. Maggie

    Thank you for your point about acknowledging how hard it all is sometimes, and reminding me that it’s ok to acknowledge and move on. I blame all of those “Make $2,000,000 in Passive Income While You Sleep” courses for making me think that business should be easy, and sometimes downplay the hours of work and brain power that go into what I do. Not the main point of your post, I know, but something I really needed to be reminded of!

  6. Marie Therese

    Oh gosh, this is me to a T. I feel like I avoid things that make me happy because I don’t think I’m worth the time and energy to go for it. Of course, when I actually do, I love it, but I like me some comfort, and it’s so challenging to break out of the comfort zone. In short, this article really resonated with me. Thank you!

  7. Alycia

    Another awesome post, Sarah! The “hard things” section really resonated with me, especially the part about waking up early to work out. I don’t love waking up at 5am to run but it’s always worth it and it makes me happy/v satisfied afterward. Well, sometimes during my runs I’m that smiling goober saying hi to everyone because thank you, endorphins! Anyway, I think acknowledging that it is hard and I CAN and DO do hard things on those days that I’d rather stay in bed will help me get going. Thank you for your work and words!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      So glad you found it helpful, Alycia! (AND I AM SO IMPRESSED BY 5 AM RUNNERS)

  8. Kate

    I TOTALLY agree that not downplaying the effort that goes into our accomplishments makes us take them more seriously. I always try and own up to my own deep-seated internal pride in my accomplishments, and it feels really good.

  9. Anonymous

    Hi Sarah, I love your blog, and I especially love this post. I am a grown, married woman, an attorney, basically I have my life together, and everyone thinks I’m so mainstream, preppy, and happy-go-lucky. But hardly anyone knows that my absolute best friend in this world is in prison (except my husband and parents). I don’t tell anyone anymore because when I’ve told people before, they’ve freaked out, said nasty things, etc (including my parents). Sometimes I get down on myself and think that since society says it’s not ok to be friends with a prisoner, that I must be a crazy person. But then I remember that this friend makes me happy, improves my life, is trustworthy, and the friendship just feels so right to me, and I know it was meant to be.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Good for you, Anon! <3

  10. Sense

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I think we get the term ‘self-care’ confused with ‘comfort all the time.’ Self care/happiness is not necessarily all pedicures and binge watching TV, however happy it makes me to come home at the end of the work day and delve into my fluffy pillows and laptop.

    As you said, TREAT YO’SELF is sometimes actually means flossing and tax returns and doing all that hard junk to get to that happy, healthy place that you want to be.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      YES. I wrote about that in this post!

      • Nadalyn

        I found this article because I’m wondering why it is I never clean up my house. I like my house to be clean, I feel much better when it’s clean, but I hate doing it and so I don’t. It’s so much easier to sit there and watch TV and think about how I wish I was cleaning the house than it is to get up and actually do it!!! I’ve been trying to clear the clutter out of my house for over three years now. I have made progress but I’m still not where I want to be. It’s just time to get it done.

  11. Julie

    I will no longer feel guilty and hide the fact that…..

    Naps Rock!

    confession done and I don’t care. haha

  12. Erin

    LOVE the “The more you like your decision, the less it matters if other people do.” quote. It’s so true.

  13. Danielle

    So true that I often find myself thinking, “but I’m not the kind of person that does that.”
    What the hell is wrong with me?? I’m the kind of person who does whatever I damn well please.
    Danielle @ afloat on a full sea

  14. Milena Rangelov

    This post is amazing! I recently heard an interview with Dan Ariely about his new book “Payoff” and he talks about how we always strive for instant gratification instead for something that is hard at the moment but brings long lasting happiness and satisfaction. I guess we are a bit myopic and also bombarded with myriad of instant pleasures. I think the key is to break our own inertia and see the bigger picture. Thank you for this post, Sarah.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      So glad it resonated with you, Milena!

  15. Lanika

    I will admit #s 1 + 2 could’ve basically called me out by name, but I also find that sometimes I, and women around me whom I love dearly, will avoid doing something that makes us happy because for whatever reason we feel like we don’t deserve it (the dishes aren’t done, we didn’t read the book first, we didn’t work out when we’d planned to, there are a million big and small reasons women punish themselves or put gratification, pleasure and happiness on standby because we feel like we haven’t earned it yet or we’re not worthy)

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