Do we even know what “happiness” means? We seem to have a growing obsession with “happiness,” and while I love the positive spark of this concept, I suspect we’re missing the point.
As Todd Kashdan wrote recently in The Problem with Happiness (Huffington Post), we’re going about the “pursuit of happiness” in a way that’s actually undermining wellbeing!
“…as people place more importance on being happy, they become more unhappy and depressed.”
I frequently ask parents, “what do you most want for your children?” On a tiny poll I ran, 73% gave their top score to… you guessed, “Happiness.” Unfortunately, recent research suggests that not only does a happiness-obsession decrease real happiness, this trend may also be increasing self-interest and decreasing care for others.
At the core, I suspect, is a misunderstanding of the word itself.
Happiness Creates Unhappiness?
You may have heard one of Brené Brown’s compelling TED Talks about her research on vulnerability. One important finding: Suppress one emotion, and you suppress them all. We cope with overload by dissociating – at a neurological level we dampen our emotional responses. This lets us “cope” with seriously difficult moments (e.g., a warrior in hostile territory) – but there are significant costs to living in survival mode.
On a “happiness quest,” people often reject difficult feelings – and even blame themselves for feeling something “less” than bliss. I remember once being on vacation in Hawaii, and thinking, “I SHOULD be blissfully happy,” but I wasn’t. In Buddhist thought, that mismatch between expectation and reality is one the cause unhappiness. I increased my unhappiness by rejecting my own real, useful feelings of worry and discontent, attempting to replace “real” with “pleasant.”
I suspect that many of us fall into this trap: We’re “supposed to be happy,” and in trying to be so, we push aside feelings that seem contrary to bliss. We suppress the uncomfortable feelings, thinking that will make room for happiness; but when we suppress any feeling, we suppress all feelings. Instead of increasing happiness, rejecting those “negative” feelings just creates numbness.
Even worse, this emotional favoritism makes it extremely difficult to move forward. Emotions serve to signal opportunity and threat, and at the core, we have them to solve problems. We use mathematical data to solve math problems, we use emotional data to solve emotional problems. If we decided only to use even numbers, we’d have a hard time with algebra – the same thing happens with emotions and the algebra of relationships.
In craving happiness, if we reject and devalue sadness, and a host of other valuable emotions as “in the way of happiness,” paradoxically we lose great data that would actually help us find a more profound and lasting happiness.
In English, we use the word “happiness” to convey a wide range of experiences. From the transitory moment of satisfied desire, to the profound connection to our own souls, we’re ‘happy.’ My colleagues Wendy Wu and Natalie Roitman from Six Seconds China told me there are multiple words for happiness in Chinese, two are:
快乐 (“kuaile” in Mandarin) represents the happiness of a moment. A cold beer on a hot day. A coveted pair of shoes on sale. The beauty of a sunset.
幸福 （”xingfu” in Mandarin) signifies a more enduring fulfillment. Reciprocity in a relationship. Balance between present and future. Growing wisdom. This “happiness” is deeper, each person “owns” it and nobody can just take it away. Is more stable/sustainable.
My colleagues in China said both might be translated as “happy” in English, despite profoundly different meanings. If we have trouble distinguishing between these aspects of happiness, I suspect we’ll have a hard time gaining either.
One of my university mentors, Colin Dobell, once asked me in his crisp Anglo-Canadian accent: “Why are Americans so obsessed with happiness? Aren’t there more important goals in life?” At the time, I thought being happy might be quite fulfilling. A few years later, I’d like something deeper. Maybe “profound happiness” – I’d like to feel wholeness, connected to the fabric of life. I’d like to feel worthy of the incredible gifts and opportunities life has given me. I’d like to be on the side of history that makes the world better. While this would make me happy, I’m also willing to struggle and sacrifice for these goals.
New research suggests that most people would call this “meaning,” and that the drivers of meaning are quite different from the drivers of “happiness.” Roy Baumeister is the lead author of the forthcoming paper, Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life. Based on surveys about the meanings and causes of these two goals, a key conclusion:
The paper offers an important insight: wellbeing, or thriving, comes not from chasing momentary happiness, but from deeply engaging in life. “Happiness is mainly about getting what one wants and needs, including from other people or even just by using money. In contrast, meaningfulness was linked to doing things that express and reflect the self, and in particular to doing positive things for others.”
I’m Really Happy Now
Many studies show that we can increase our levels of happiness, and even more, our wellbeing. Engaging with life is key. Connecting. Deep relationships. Meaning.
A recent BBC article, Can We Make Ourselves Happier, offers that “studies suggest leading an active life has the strongest correlation with happiness.”
Other studies show that money can buy happiness – when used for the benefit of others. Generosity, gratitude, compassion, and service all seem to be positively correlated with a deep, lasting wellbeing.
As Emily Esfahani Smith recently wrote in The Atlantic, There’s More to Life Than Being Happy, “by devoting our lives to ‘giving’ rather than ‘taking’ — we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also acknowledging that that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.”
In English, we don’t have one word to express the state of “fully aliveness” that might translate as lasting happiness. Maslow encouraged “self-actualization.” Happiness researcher Martin Seligman is now advocating, “flourishing.” I like the term, “Thriving.”
All these words describe a rich engagement with life. Like those traditional marriage vows, it’s about living life when it’s easy AND when it’s hard. Most likely, we actually grow and deepen in times of challenge. That’s one reason we need to be open to all our emotions, not just the “pleasant” ones.
Emotions help us know what is important, and are important in “mature judgment” as well as ethical decision-making. They tell us where we stand, who we can trust, who to push away, and who to embrace. They also remind us to take care of ourselves and each other, and fuel both resistance and innovation.
So let’s not limit ourselves to a pursuit of happiness. Let’s participate fully in life, and welcome the fear as well as safety, the sorrow as well as bliss, even shame as well as pride. Let’s use all of our emotions as advisors and signals on an adventure to a life lived fully.
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