How to Pursue Happiness
Happiness has been a hot topic this summer in the personal finance blogosphere. Mr. Money Moustache, Frugalwoods, Our Next Life, and ThinkSaveRetire have all shared their philosophy of happiness recently.
It’s great that the money people are taking on transcendent topics. There’s more to life than money, as we all agree. Keeping our happiness in view helps us balance and direct our financial goals within the bigger picture of life.
But before we embrace any philosophical belief, we must scrutinize its underlying assumptions. I’m all for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but I want to do it right. The foundational presuppositions of the “primarily pursue happiness” viewpoint include:
- We know what will make us happy.
- What makes us happy is good for us.
- Happiness can be pursued directly.
Do We Know What Will Make Us Happy?
Before making happiness our life’s goal, we’d want to be confident that we can predict what will make us happy. Plenty of research suggests we can’t do so reliably. A couple good TED talks on the topic:
- Getting what we want doesn’t make people any happier than not getting what they want.
- Happiness isn’t linked to circumstances.
And surely we’ve all experienced a failure to forecast what will satisfy. For example, I never wanted to marry. Then I tied the knot at age 20 and have been happily married for 10 years. People think a career in business will make them happy only to return to school for a teaching degree a few years later. And we’ve all made fun purchases, thinking the object or experience will make us happy, only to look to the next purchase all too soon.
Is What Makes Us Happy Good For Us?
It’s easy to think of examples of unhealthy things that make people feel happy, but there are plenty of legal, good pastimes, possessions, or traits that make us happy for a while, but don’t deliver in the long run. Hollywood is littered with successful, beautiful, wealthy people whose utter unhappiness is tragically on display, and we’ve all known plenty of cases close to home, too.
- People who have traits others believe comprise happiness—wealth, smarts, beauty, talent—actually report lower happiness levels than their average counterparts.
- Olympic gymnastics gold medalist Shawn Johnson described how disappointing her Olympic experience was.
- Quarterback Tom Brady reported feeling completely empty despite his hugely successful football career, massive wealth, and supermodel wife.
- Dave Chappell ran away to South Africa after making $50 million by age 32, and stated “It seems the higher up I go, the less happy I am.”
- Sigmund Freud declared that the “pursuit of happiness is a doomed quest.”
- The author of Ecclesiastes recorded the results of his search for happiness. He tried women, wine, work, wealth, and education. His conclusion? “Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after the wind and there was no profit under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11).
We want to find the perfect cocktail of financial stability, hobbies, friends, productivity, and creativity to make us happy. But what if it can’t? We are prone to imbalance and to wanting “too much of a good thing.” Even more subtly dangerous is wanting too much from a good thing.
Conversely, is what makes us unhappy bad for us? It all depends. Of course unhealthy pursuits and relationships are toxic, but periods of suffering are often viewed as the most redemptive or life-changing within a few years. An American Sociological Association study showed childless couples are happier than those with children. Of course! Raising kids is HARD! While I often feel unhappy when I’m being nagged, woken up, or pooped on, I am so happy that I have children. I’ve grown a lot already and the whole experience is very humbling and amazing.
Can Happiness Be Pursued Directly?
The reason our plans for happiness tend to evade us is that happiness can’t be pursued directly. It’s kind of like falling in love: you can’t force it. You can take some steps that are within your power; that’s fine and good. I’m not saying we should abandon everything that gives us cheer to wear sackcloth and ashes. Happiness and wanting to be happy aren’t wrong. Enjoying hobbies, experiences, and material provisions is awesome. “God has given us every good thing to enjoy.”
We all know you can’t buy happiness. Turns out you can’t chase it, either. TED talks by psychologists Dan Gilbert and Nancie Etcoff explore why happiness can’t be pursued directly. C.S. Lewis makes a wonderful case for this principle in Surprised by Joy. He searched for happiness his whole life, only to discover that you can’t find it. It finds you, often when you’re least expecting it.
So what are we supposed to do? I believe happiness comes from:
Above the sun. If everything under the sun is ultimately meaningless and unable to deliver true, enduring happiness, we need to look to a transcendent source. This is what surprised Lewis: a lifetime of searching for a feeling state left him unfulfilled. Meeting the Author of Joy brought an unexpected joy that rose above circumstance and emotion.
Be happy with what you have. “It’s not getting what you want, it’s wanting what you got” Sheryl Crow sang, and the apostle Paul agrees: “If we have food and covering, let us be content” (1 Timothy 6:8). Research concurs that, once a reasonable standard of living is secured, additional income doesn’t increase happiness. The principle of diminishing returns often applies to other areas like success or leisure time. The true secret to financial freedom isn’t reaching financial independence, or early retirement. It’s contentment.
Having a purpose. What brings real fulfillment and contentment is knowing our lives mean something. You may be ecstatic for a short time, but that doesn’t impact your overall life much in the long run. When I think back to my life just twelve short years ago, I scarcely remember my emotional state. What I do remember is my purpose at that time. And this is also what we remember about others, whether our grandparents or modern or historic heroes.
Making others happy. I’ve framed this many ways—Inflate Your Usefulness, Not Your Lifestyle, Inflate Someone Else’s Lifestyle Instead of Your Own, and Real Worth vs. Net Worth to name a few. I’m almost sorry to beat this drum again! But according to my experience, others’ research, and the wisdom of Jesus, it really is better to give than to receive.
Bringing others joy lies at the heart of having a purpose. If it’s all about me, I’m just chasing a moving target, a carrot tied to a stick. While getting happiness can’t be our primary reason for caring about others, it’s a likely side effect. And if directly pursuing my own bliss is ineffective, I might as well brighten other people’s lives.
Now, after all that philosophy, go enjoy this feel-good dance video.
What do you believe makes people happy?