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:

  1. We know what will make us happy.
  2. What makes us happy is good for us.
  3. 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:

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?

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30 Responses to “How to Pursue Happiness”

  1. Ernie says :

    I haven’t thought about happiness much, but I think I would lean towards agreeing with you and the others you referenced that happiness can’t be pursued directly. It seems to me that happiness is basically an emotion that comes and goes just like any other emotion. Having a purpose is great and very necessary I believe, but one day it can be a source of happiness and the next one of frustration. The same goes for possessions, God, and selflessly giving of yourself to others (at least in my experience). As I think about it more, I’m reminded of the movie Inside Out. I loved that movie, and I think it did a great job of showing us that all emotions serve an important role. Perhaps if we want to experience happiness more we need to learn to also embrace the other emotions that aren’t as fun like sadness, anger, and fear.

    • Kalie says :

      Great point about emotions, Ernie. I haven’t seen that movie yet but have heard great things about it. I’ll have to check it out! You’re right that as humans we do have to ride the wave of emotions to some degree and learn what we can from them. You’re also right that sacrificing for others needs some boundaries–we need rest for ourselves to avoid burnout, and we don’t need to give to others in ways that aren’t ultimately helpful for them.

  2. The Green Swan says :

    What a fantastic breakdown of the “pursuit of happiness”! I find my self contemplating my life pursuit upon retirement and what I’ll do to maximize happiness and joy of life. I often come back to spending as much time as I can with friends and family, getting involved and volunteering for a non-profit or a cause close to my heart, maximizing R&R and lowering stress! That more or less checks the box on the four tips you’ve outlined to as the source of happiness.

    Thanks for the great post!

  3. Tonya says :

    I love this topic! I studied the science of happiness online last year and I loved it, because it CAN be a science. There have been studies proving certain things like giving can bring you happiness, gratitude, and several other simple things that can all do a better job of that will bring us fulfillment

    • Kalie says :

      That’s so cool that you studied the topic last year. The research is pretty intriguing. Giving and gratitude are huge factors in happiness, even though they’re not what we might first think of.

  4. Mr. PIE says :

    Being able to give something first is invariably a god way to look at work, living and relationships. Whether it is a smile, a cordial welcome, a hand of help or a few dollars. But give it first.

    I am also a believer in “Happiness through subtraction” . identifying those things that make you unhappy is often easier than finding what makes you happy. It is an interesting topic this in itself.

    Lovely post, enjoyed reading this on this Monday morning

    • Kalie says :

      Happiness through subtraction is an interesting topic–thanks for mentioning it. You’re right that it can be much easier to pinpoint. I think the simple living/minimalist moving is working that angle a lot and it often makes sense.

  5. Amanda says :

    I love this post, Kalie! Happiness isn’t something I’ve thought about lately, but have many times over the past few years and I’ve come to many of the same conclusions you mention here.

    Not really knowing what will bring happiness is an important point. When I was pursuing a graduate degree, I married my husband with the understanding I may not ever want to have children. Fast forward five years and I was a stay at home mom with two young children. Being able to stay home with them brought our family great happiness. Oh how life changes!

    I also completely agree with you that gratitude and giving to others are keys to happiness. Thanks for the reminders!

    • Kalie says :

      Thanks for sharing your example of changing life directions, yet finding great happiness. Sometimes it’s really hard to predict what our future selves will want. That’s why we’re all about financial flexibility–we may not know we’ll want, but we want to have as many options open as possible.

  6. NZ Muse says :

    Happiness is something I’ve thought a LOT about over the past couple of years through money stress and marriage issues.

    I can now say definitively it includes financial stability, my dog, my own home and yard and work I enjoy.

    • Kalie says :

      That’s wonderful that tough times have helped you identity what brings you happiness. Thank you for sharing this!

  7. Latoya Femme Frugality says :

    I gave up the pursuit of happiness a long time ago for many of the reasons you’ve stated. I believe happiness is fleeting, but joy isn’t. Regardless of having a bad day, not getting what I want, or fwelding blue, I have joy through it all and that’s from having faith and knowing life is greater than me…if that makes any sense.

    • Kalie says :

      I absolutely agree with your distinction between joy and happiness, though I think joy is what most people are truly after when they talk about happiness.Your statement makes perfect sense to me–joy can transcend circumstances and emotions because of the bigger picture.

  8. Prudence Debtfree says :

    I recently watched an Andy Stanley sermon based on Ecclesiastes (Time of Your Life Part 5 of 5 – “Under the Sun”), and he says just what you say about “above the sun”. Great stuff! I’ve learned to hold loosely to my notions of what will bring happiness and to be more open to it finding me instead of vice versa. The idea that “I will be happy when I . . . ” (get married; get promoted; have a child; pay off the mortgage . . . ) is completely false. It’s fine to pursue these things – but again, with only a loose grip, and limited expectations of the outcome.

    • Kalie says :

      Ooh, I’ll have to check out that sermon. You’re right that expecting the next big (or small) step in life to bring complete happiness is disappointing. Thanks for sharing what you’ve learned about happiness!

  9. DC YAM says :

    My pastor, Peter Haas, recently published a book called “Broken Escalators.” He’s a research/data geek and found that research showed most of what makes us happy is NOT related to material things like money or possessions. I will admit I haven’t finished the book yet, but I think happiness can be different for each person. Accomplishments can be great, but once you accomplish something there is a void and some people even feel depressed (as you alluded to earlier in the post). I personally am happiest when I can use my skills, talents, and abilities to help others. Whether that’s indirectly through writing a blog that has a positive impact or more directly by giving someone a larger-than-expected tip, making those positive impacts on others truly is when I feel happiest.

    • Kalie says :

      That sounds like a really interesting book! Thanks for sharing what you’ve found makes you happy. Helping others is often very fulfilling, and it seems like you are doing a great job of it through your writing.

  10. Our Next Life says :

    I love this post. Thank you for bringing such a thoughtful take to the subject! I absolutely agree that you can’t pursue happiness directly, and agree that most often money and success lead to less happiness, not more. This is highly unscientific of me to say, but I feel happiest when I decide to be happy. It’s less something to seek, and more something to just be. The stuff we pursue is more about being more grateful, simplifying our lives, spending time doing the things that we love to do and that align to our values. Not that it’s not a worthy pursuit — it is! — but seeking it external to ourselves rather than within ourselves is looking in the wrong place. 🙂

    • Kalie says :

      Thank you for your insightful comment. I read a book some time ago called “Happiness is a Choice,” and its thesis was similar to what you’re expressing. It helped me a lot–I’m a bit melancholic by nature. I can always find something to be unhappy about, even in great circumstances. But then, there is always so much to be grateful for as well.

  11. ZJ Thorne says :

    This is why I have never pursued happiness. I pursue wholeness. In my mind and my life. What I want in particular will adjust as I change and circumstances change. As long as I am growing in empathy and curiosity, I am okay with where I’ll end up.

    • Kalie says :

      “Wholeness”–what a cool way to approach life, and I like that you’ve defined it further in terms of personal growth. I agree that who we are and who we’re becoming matters much more than the circumstances of our lives, or even what we do or accomplish.

  12. MyMoneyDesign says :

    This is something that I think about often, both in the present and how I will want to be when I reach financial freedom. To me, happiness is when you bring out the happiness in other people. This can be from something as simple as spending time / playing with your children, or something more complicated like helping an older relative with work around the house or their finances. I believe the key is “giving”, but not just directly into what only makes others feel good, but for you as well.

    • Kalie says :

      Giving to others and helping them experience more joy or happiness is a huge source of satisfaction. That’s great you are thinking about the kind of person you want to be when you reach financial freedom. It’s all too easy to think that financial state will automatically make us happy, when who we become is much more important.

  13. Andrew Findlaytor says :

    I know we are a little late, but this article is very near and dear to our heart! Thank you for bringing up such an important topic. Money without happiness is not worth anything. We believe that true wealth comes from balance and growth both financially and personally (which includes spiritually). I especially love your topic of finding joy through helping others. Keep up the great work!

    • Kalie says :

      I’m glad the part about finding joy through helping others resonates with you. It’s easy to neglect the spiritual when focusing on money, but I believe it’s important and possible to integrate all facets of life.

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