Why the Pursuit of Happiness is Overrated: What to Look for Instead
There is so much fodder in pop culture and the media about the pursuit of happiness. We see articles on the “happiest cities” and “what makes people happy” almost daily. I repeatedly hear “I just want to feel happy and alive” when I ask people I work with what they really want.
The trouble with the pursuit of feeling “happy” is that the state of what we describe as “happy” is an emotion or a feeling. Emotions and feelings are fleeting and fickle. When someone cuts you off in traffic, you usually don’t feel “happy”, at least for that fleeting moment. If someone you love is ill or hurt, “happy” doesn’t describe the emotional state you are in. Our human emotional states vary and ebb and flow, even amongst the most self-aware and adept at self-management.
I would challenge that what we really are searching for is meaning. A dictionary.com definition of the word meaning describes it as the end, purpose, or significance of something. When we don’t have or have lost sight of our own purpose, contribution, or significance, we feel unfulfilled.
Over the past twenty years, I have conducted an exercise in leadership workshops that not only never ceases to touch me, remind me of our “sameness”, but also points to this common search for meaning and impact.
At the beginning of the workshop, I have each person in the room depict their life’s journey so far in a drawing on a flipchart page. They are to include not only their career trajectory but also their personal story. I also ask them to answer these three questions:
What was a major turning point that shaped who you are today?
How does this story impact what is important to you?
What is most important to you?
I have had the privilege to hear the most amazing stories behind the masks people wear to work each day. Real stories of personal struggle, hardship, triumph, courage, and resilience. I sit inspired and in awe most of the time as I see the untapped potential and complexity behind someone we only know from the “title” they have in an organizational pecking order.
But the thing that strikes me the most is the answer to the “what is important to you” question. Without fail, health, family, and some version of “to make a difference” are the top answers to that question. “To make a difference” implies having an impact. It implies being significant. It means that what I am doing means something and has a purpose. And what is a bit ironic is that sometimes making a difference doesn’t always coincide with the emotion of happiness.
I’m not sure Rosa Parks would describe her feelings as “happy” when she made the monumental, purposeful move of not giving her seat up on that segregated bus and spurred efforts to end segregation. “Happy” probably doesn’t describe your state when you are grounding your teenager and hoping to model and evoke a sense of responsibility in his/her actions.
Chasing the elusive “happy” emotional state, whether it is through the attention of others, achievement, material belongings, or even overindulging in food or alcohol will not provide that sense of significance and meaning we are longing for.
Instead, perhaps we should be asking ourselves these questions:
· How can I be of service?
· How can I contribute?
· Where can I have impact?
· What unique strength or quality do I offer that can be leveraged no matter where I am? (For example, nurturing, organizing, decision-making, calmness, creativity, etc.)
Feeling “alive” doesn’t come from others or from our circumstance. I am reminded of the words of Viktor Frankl, the holocaust survivor who explains it best in his classic, must-read work, “Man’s Search for Meaning”:
“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”
“Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant.”
What can you do today to be more “alive”?