The key to happiness is ignoring the pursuit of happiness

We all strive to be happy. We put a lot of time and effort into it, but often get caught up in bad habits and cycles of misery. We may even sometimes wonder if happiness is even a worthy pursuit.

in my book happiness by design, I have argued that the concept of happiness includes the attainment of feelings of meaning (or meaning and fulfillment) alongside feelings of pleasure (like joy and excitement). For example, when I’m teaching students, my happiness is different than when I go out at night: the first is more fulfilling, the second is more fun.

There are also two common obstacles to keep in mind when we talk about what makes us happy. The first is the idea that the mere pursuit of happiness drives people to only care about themselves, making them narcissistic and selfish. And the second idea is that, paradoxically, focusing on happiness can make us unhappy.

But when happiness is defined in terms of both joy and purpose, it becomes easy to see just how good it is to help others be happy. We get a warm glow from helping other people, which stems in large part from the purpose we feel in doing it. Helping other people is indeed one of the main causes of happiness. Charitable giving and volunteering has been shown to make people happier. Doing good is completely compatible with feeling good.

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This definition of happiness also explains why being productive at work or learning a new skill feels good: not just because it’s fun, but because it feels fulfilled. Therefore, we should all try to find the right balance of joy and purpose in the activities we engage in and the people we spend time with.

You may then wonder if it is selfish to pursue altruistic actions just because you think they will make you happier. Well, research has shown that those who establish “moral hierarchies” of charity that strive to put actions that do not involve personal benefit at the top of the treetop are actually actively discouraging people from helping others. There is solid evidence that remembering the personal benefits that come from helping others actually encourages more behavior that helps other people.

We also see higher volunteering rates when potential volunteers are reminded that prosociality—behaviour intended to benefit others—increases happiness. So we should do far more to celebrate the “selfishness” of selflessness and not make claims about the superiority of purely selfless acts that the evidence doesn’t support.

The second common mistake concerns concentration. As mentioned earlier, some researchers believe that the pursuit of happiness can actually make us less happy. This means that we should not seek happiness directly. Rather, evidence suggests that striving for the root causes of happiness is what leads to us being happier.

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For example, listening to music has been shown to be one of the most important factors in happiness. It’s such an obvious yet overlooked way to feel good: do more of it and you’ll be happier. But don’t think about how happy it makes you while you’re listening because it will make you feel less good.

In fact, if you constantly monitor how you’re feeling in general, you’re going to start feeling less good.

To give another example, if you pay attention to how you’re feeling while doing it, you’re less likely to get totally lost in the zone and enter a state of flow at work. Focusing on the feelings just takes you out of this immersion in the activity. You’ll be happier when you’re not constantly distracted by thoughts of whether you’re actually happy.

So we need to spend some time figuring out what brings us joy and purpose and finding the right balance between them. But once we’ve done this testing, we need to focus on the activities themselves and not how those activities make us feel.

We might also worry that we become so obsessed with being happy that we forget to enjoy how things feel along the way. But if you pay attention to the activities that make you feel good, you’ll be happier without having to think about it. And who wouldn’t want that…?

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