Happiness may be the purpose of life, but it seems to elude most people. Consider this startling and sad fact: Only one in three Americans claim to be happy.
Which, of course, begs the obvious question: Why is happiness so hard to experience?
I have a theory, which is a bit counterintuitive: The pursuit of happiness is getting in the way of happiness itself. It’s always out there, waiting to be had around the next corner. We hear this all the time.
“I’ll be happy when I graduate.”
“I’ll be happy when I find my soulmate.”
“I’ll be happy when I finally catch my big break.”
“I’ll be happy when I retire.”
I’ll be happy when…
The Problem With The American Dream
In a recent interview, Naval Ravikant, angel investor extraordinaire and founder of Angel List, explained that Americans naively believe that success will bring them happiness.
As he points out, society had taught us that we can all be like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, and Katy Perry. We obsess ourselves with success only to find ourselves stressed out and wanting. And yet, once we get what we want, or close enough, we realize we still don’t have what we were looking for. There is something even more fundamental than happiness.
“It is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’” — Viktor Frankl
What Ravikant was hinting at, and what Frankl gets just right, is that happiness cannot be pursued directly. It is a byproduct of having sincere meaning in one’s life. Find your purpose — live it — and happiness takes care of itself.
There’s good grounding for this in psychological research. According to the experts, happiness and meaning have some crossover, but are also distinct. People seeking happiness are often “takers,” while people seeking meaning are often “givers.” There is more to life than what you can acquire and achieve. Even still, the world gives to the givers and takes from the takers.
But it’s even simpler than that.
Most people believe they must first have something (e.g., money, time, or love) before they can do what they want to do (e.g., travel the world, write a book, start a business, or start a relationship), which will ultimately allow them to be something (e.g., happy, peaceful, content, motivated, or be in love). But happiness is not in what you have or do — it’s in who you are.
The have - do - be paradigm must actually be reversed in order to experience happiness, success, or anything else you desire.
First you be whatever it is you want to be (e.g., happy, compassionate, peaceful, wise, or loving), then you start doing things from this space of being. Almost immediately, what you are doing will bring about the things you want to have. We attract into our lives what we are.
So if you want to be happy, be happy. If you want to be generous, be generous. If you want to be sincere, be sincere.
“There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way.” — Wayne Dyer
Do You Choose Discipline or Regret?
“There are two types of pain you will go through in life, the pain of discipline and the pain of regret. Discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.” ― Jim Rohn
I’ll make an uncomfortable observation: You are delusional if you forego discipline in your pursuit of happiness. True happiness follows from who we become and how we relate to the world.
Yet, people are sold on get-rich-quick schemes or happiness-over-night promises because they don’t want to put in the work. They don’t want to change; and discipline requires that you change. And change is hard as hell and painful.
Most people would rather appear good than actually be good.
Do You Choose Freedom or Security?
“He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither.” — Ben Franklin
When you seek security in external things, you are living a delusion. Yet, we’ve been taught that security comes in having a steady paycheck, in fitting in with our friends, and in having nice possessions. So we spend our entire lives trying to keep up.
“We spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to make impressions that don’t matter.” — Tim Jackson
This is not security, but conformity.
True security can only be experienced internally — in being authentic to your core-self. This is personal freedom.You could have all the money in the world and still not be free. You could be a slave to time and all your possessions. As Chuck Palahniuk famously wrote in Fight Club, “The things you own end up owning you.”
Do You Have Harmonious or Obsessive Passion?
There are two forms of passion: one healthy and the other unhealthy.
Harmonious passion is something you’ve chosen on your own accord. You view the activity as important in itself and feel no social pressure to do it. You are in control of your passion and can easily concentrate while you do it, often entering a state of flow.
On the other hand, obsessive passion originates from social pressure with certain contingencies attached — such as feelings of social acceptance or self-esteem.
People become unhealthily obsessed with things all the time, becoming dependent on the object of their passion. They are controlled by this passion, rather than the other way around.
Obsessive passion can cause a person to give up everything meaningful in their lives. They become narrow-sighted and the center of their own universe—thinking very little about the feelings or needs of others (even those closest to them). Everything becomes tied to a specific result. Their lives become a empty and shallow mess.
I’ll be honest. I’ve been obsessed — and it’s not a happy or healthy place to be. When obsessed, I can become highly irritable and reactive— the smallest things can put me on edge. I can even come to resent my wife and kids. I often isolate myself from others and become consumed in self.
It’s not worth it.
Do You Choose Happiness or Pleasure?
Research has found that during periods of stress and exhaustion, people’s cortisol levels can spike, increasing their cravings for things that bring momentary comfort.
In such moments, people are likely to act based on emotion, rather than logic or resolve. Hence, stress eating and other behaviors like impulsive shopping, sex, and TV binging.
These behaviors are not inherently bad. But often act as a form of self-sabotage when a person is in survival mode. The belief that these impulsive and often regretful behaviors will bring happiness is delusion.
But compulsive comfort seeking does not have to be our automatic reaction (no matter how stressed or exhausted we are). As human beings, we are not governed by animal instincts, but by our choices.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” — Viktor Frankl
Sadly, people often choose momentary pleasure at the expense of genuine happiness. And there is a fundamental difference between the two.
Pleasure can be experienced in the moment — like say, eating a doughnut or having a one-night-stand. Happiness is focused on the long-term; to borrow the old canard, it is a journey, not a destination.
Is Happiness Mundane Or Sexy?
Happiness can be had in any circumstance. But we’ve been taught our whole lives that happiness is flashy, exciting, sexy, famous, and in high position. Apparently, if we’re not constantly feeling amazing, our lives suck.
However, when looking back on life, we find that the deepest meaning was had in the small and simple things. Happiness is often not sexy, but mundane and even boring a lot of the time. We are fooled when we dismiss the fundamentals in exchange for outward appearance, social norms, or other people’s opinions of what matters. This is being caught in the thick of thin things.
Happiness is simple, not spectacular.
Want to be happy? Be happy.
“Happiness is now.” — Rumi
Sure, it might seem easy, or even contrived, so posit that in order to be happy, you must simply become happy. But the truth is it’s about that simple. Everything you need to be happy, you already have—it is a state of being. But we have become a society of human-doings, frantically searching for the next thing.
More than happiness, our search should be for meaning. No matter what your life currently looks like, be happy. Your life matters, and the simplest things in your life are ultimately what matter most.
Be happy. Your universe will flourish and flower.
Benjamin Hardy is the foster parent of three children and the author of Slipstream Time Hacking. He’s pursuing his Ph.D. in organizational psychology. To learn more about Mr. Hardy, visit www.benjaminhardy.com or connect with him on Twitter.