For whatever reason, I have been seeing lots of memes, posts, and more on social media about pursuing happiness. One of these declared, “Just do whatever makes you happy and don’t worry about anything else.”
Really? Nothing else? Your own happiness is the only thing of value worth pursuing?
I’ll admit, I find this advice to be trite and shallow. I realize that I will get some pushback on that, and that’s ok. But, happiness should not be the goal for life. In my view, happiness is not only temporary and fleeting, but situation dependent. Simply pursuing what makes you happy is one of the fastest ways to unhappiness that I know of. A paradox to be sure.
Think about this for a moment. When side-by-side comparisons are made and happiness levels measured, people with kids are on average less happy than their childless counterparts. Some have pointed to this as a reason for not having kids. Yet, if you ask virtually every parent out there if they would go back and do it again without kids, the overwhelming answer would be no. Why? If on average you would be happier without kids then why would any reasonable person answer no to that question?
Because it’s the wrong metric. You’re asking the wrong question.
The question shouldn’t be “What makes you happy?” but, “What gives you meaning?”
Meaning. Perhaps that’s the key to living a fulfilling life. Not a happy life, but a meaningful life. What’s the difference?
Well, do you think Mother Teresa was happy? How about Martin Luther King, Jr.? Or Jesus Christ? Is Elon Musk happy? I can’t see how any of these people were happy. At least as a general and sustained state of being.
But did/do they have meaning in life? You bet your ass they do. The impact that each of these individuals have made on our culture, our societies, and our lives is immeasurable.
In his groundbreaking book, Man’s Search for Meaning, psychologist Viktor Frankl wrote about his experience as a holocaust prison camp survivor. He wasn’t happy for most of his life, of that you can be sure. But, he wrote about how living through that experience allowed him to find meaning that gave his life a purpose. The results of that experience helped him change the lives of countless thousands of people (including mine) through his writings and clinical work.
I don’t think that being happy is bad, obviously. Only that we should think long and hard before making that our primary aim in life. I believe that we can intentionally build happiness into our lives in small moments between the responsibilities, the suffering, and the stress of living.
Happiness is a glass of bourbon and good conversation with a friend. It’s a gripping book, read by the fire on a winter night. It’s smelling the back of an infant’s neck while cradling them gently. It’s seeing your child toddle their first few steps or keep their bicycle upright for the first time.
It’s making love to your soulmate. It’s watching a sunset from a beach or a sunrise come up over the mountains.
These are the moments of happiness that can be had. Like fireflies in the night sky, blinking, fleeting, moments of happiness can be had. Bit by bit. Each flash of light causing wonder, awe, and an exclamation of “Oooh there’s another one!” as we point excitedly to it.
But as a pursuit? No. Try meaning instead.
Building a life of meaning is making a lasting and positive impact on your family, those around you, or your community. It’s about leaving the world a bit better than you found it. It’s creating the peace of mind that you are making yourself a better person and, by extension, everything around you better too. It’s about living a life worth living. Maybe some happiness is a by-product of that. Good. That’s good. But simply be grateful for it. Don’t make that what you strive for. After all, with as much suffering as there is in the world, the big question isn’t why we can’t be happy all the time, but why aren’t we sad all the time? The true miracle is that we are able to experience any happiness at all!
So, don’t strive for happiness. Strive for meaning instead.