To create a fulfilling and meaningful life, should we work towards creating happiness? Or, is the pursuit of happiness a misguided ambition?
It’s commonly assumed that more happiness equates to a better life. But when we hold happiness up to the lens of scientific scrutiny, is happiness really the benchmark or aim we should be pursuing?
In the United States alone, the self-help book industry brings in over $10 billion each year. (1) Often, these self-help books are aimed at strategies or tools to help bring about more joy and/or happiness in life.
Unfortunately, the majority of these books are based on what is colloquially known as pop-psychology. Pop psychology will often take a small piece of scientific evidence and transform it into a hyped-up entity that vaguely resembles the original study. (2) It’s like that telephone game you played as a kid. The message at the beginning is often quite distorted by the time it makes its way to the last person in line.
As such, the results outlined in many books and magazines are not what we experience when we put these practices into action. One of the hallmark categories of the self-help movement is that of happiness. More specifically, how happiness relates to life satisfaction. Or, how happiness adds substance and depth to our lives.
I’m sure you’ve seen books on the Amazon best-seller list that purport to have a 10-step plan to happiness. Or, a prestigious author’s fool-proof plan to fill your day with more joy. I’ve read many of these books. While the author’s motivation is likely altruistic, their advice never seems to change the amount of joy or happiness I have in my life.
Don’t get me wrong, I certainly support the endeavor of attaining more joy and happiness in life. But perhaps our pursuit is misguided.
What if happiness is the wrong metric?
What if a meaningful life was not about having more happiness in our days?
When you think of happiness, what comes to mind? For me, it’s smiles, laughter, parties, friends, and travel. Overall, happiness is tied to experiencing a positive mood. But positive moods are fleeting events. Think of a time when you picked up a loved one from the airport. Odds are, you were very happy in that moment. After that moment expired, were you still happy? Or, were you frustrated at the airport parking fees and the crazy amounts of traffic on the road?
You see, happiness, much like other emotions, is very much a momentary feeling. It is strongly impacted by our environment. When we try to bring fleeting feelings into our life, we don’t make a long-term change in our mood. The happiness theory gets muddled up when we extrapolate positive mood or happiness to equal life satisfaction. They’re two different entities.
Consider this, I am surveying you on your wedding day. On a 1-10 scale of life satisfaction (1 being completely unsatisfied with life, 10 being completely satisfied with life) how would you rate yourself? As weddings are often one of the happiest days/moments of our lives, an overwhelming majority of respondents would rate their life satisfaction a 10, or, very high.
What would happen if I did the same survey to you shortly after you’ve been laid-off from your dream job? My guess, it’s likely your life satisfaction would be quite low.
A study researching this paradox found that the mood you are in determines more than 70% of how much life satisfaction you report. (3) That means if you were surveyed on your wedding day, you’d likely report very high life satisfaction. Yet, if you got laid off from your dream job the day after your wedding, you’d report low levels of life satisfaction.
How can that be? On Monday (your wedding day) you report a 10/10 in life satisfaction. On Tuesday (the day you’re let go from work) you report a 3/10. Of course, this is an extreme example, but it illustrates how greatly our mood influences our thoughts about well-being. And if something as volatile as our mood influences life satisfaction or happiness, then we’ve got this whole equation wrong.
Happiness and therefore life satisfaction is inextricably linked to how you feel in the moment. Such a transient variable is not what needs to be pursued in order to live a life worth living.
Said another way, trying to bring more happiness to your life will not improve your life satisfaction or make you happier.
If we use mood as the metric for measuring happiness, all of us introverts (myself included) – who, on the whole, are generally less cheery than extroverts – are resigned to a life of lesser happiness than our extroverted peers. (4)
Thankfully, science has found a new benchmark that we can use to action our life towards one worth living.
A new happiness theory
Have I made it clear why happiness is the wrong metric to follow?
- Positive Emotion
- Positive relationships
Positive emotion includes moods like happiness. Positive emotion is any emotion that is pleasant and/or uplifting.
Engagement refers to those moments when we are so engaged in an activity that “time stands still” or we’re “completely absorbed by the task.” Other authors and researchers have called this the flow state.
Meaning is defined as belonging to and serving something that you feel is bigger than the self. In order for something to be meaningful, it must satisfy three criteria:
- It contributes to well-being
- It is pursued for its own sake
- It is independent of positive emotion and engagement
Think back on one of your favorite moments in life. I would bet that the moment was shared with other people. Positive relationships with friends and family are integral to well-being.
Accomplishment is different than winning. It is about accomplishing simply for the sake of accomplishing.
Why well-being and not happiness?
Happiness simplifies life to be about feeling good. Nothing more.
As anyone who has undertaken a challenging (but meaningful) project can attest to, there are many times that it feels terrible. Think about pursuing a post-secondary education. I’d argue that avoiding it would increase positive feelings. However, most would attribute it towards increasing their well-being. It creates meaning, accomplishment, positive relationships, engagement, and positive emotions. But the way in which it creates this is a challenge.
Another study looked at couples with children and those without. Couples with children report lower life satisfaction and happiness compared to couples without children. (7) No, evolution did not get it all wrong. What’s wrong is the thought of pursuing happiness as your chief aim.
Having children increases both meaning, positive relationships, and accomplishment. These are established criteria towards well-being. This is also why parents likely report higher levels of well-being than non-parents.
How to get more well-being in your life
At this point, I hope I’ve presented enough evidence for you to stop framing your goals towards getting more happiness in life. More happiness will not improve your quality of life. Instead, your goals should be aligned with increasing well-being.
The goal of well-being is to increase the amount of flourishing in your life.
To flourish, one must have the core features of well-being plus six additional features. The core features, as you now know, include: (8)
- Positive emotion
- Positive relationships
The additional features of flourishing include:
Put together, flourishing looks like this:
Positive emotion – taking all things together, how happy would you say you are?
Engagement/Interest – Are you actively engaged in (and love) learning new things?
Meaning/Purpose – Do you (overall) feel that what you do in your life is valuable and worthwhile?
Self-esteem – In general, do you feel very positive about yourself?
Resilience – When things go wrong in your life, does it generally take a short period of time to get back to normal?
Positive relationships – Are there people in your life who really care about you?
Flourishing equates to having positive answers to the above categories. Excelling in these six categories allow one to move beyond well-being. When one moves beyond well-being, researchers refer to this state as optimal human experience or flourishing. Flourishing, not happiness, is the state we all should be aiming to achieve in our lives.
To quote Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz:
What you measure affects what you do.
If we continue to try to bring about more happiness into our lives, we remain on the hamster wheel. Never truly achieving a life worth living. Should we alter our yardstick, shifting our goals towards well-being or flourishing, we can then take steps towards creating and living our ideal life.
Now, I want to hear from you!
How do you cultivate well-being in your life?
What practice(s) have improved well-being in your life?
For more articles on flourishing and finding purpose in your life, please see my recommendations below. Enjoy.
You can find all of our blog posts about finding your purpose here.
Also published on Medium.