The Truth About Happiness

Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.  —Abraham Lincoln

H appiness appears to be on the minds of many these days as we see scores of books and other media appearing to tell us more about it and help us get there. I suppose it makes sense to talk about happiness in a world that seems so full of unhappiness. People everywhere are struggling with depression, addiction, and pain of all varieties. Perhaps the notion of happiness is more relevant than ever. Even our country was founded on the idea that the “pursuit of happiness” is an inalienable right. It seems that the topic has been on our collective mind for a very long time.

What is happiness?

The concept of happiness appeared on my radar during a recent conversation with business owners about growth. In that discussion, I was pressing the group on being intentional with their planning around growth. The conversation started with the question: “where do you see your business in 3- 5 years?” One of the entrepreneurs responded with the story of a market owner who had been very successful in building a business but hated working in it; his point was that he wanted to align his growth with being happy. As I considered his response, I felt hesitant: on the one hand it made perfect sense but on another level, something seemed problematic with using happiness as a reference point for setting strategy as an objective in and of itself.

Merriam-Webster defines happiness as “a state of well-being and contentment.” The entrepreneur’s response makes perfect sense; who wouldn’t want to align the growth of their business or their life with well-being and contentment? The fundamental problem with using happiness as a reference point is that it reflects a feeling and feelings change. In fact, our feelings are a tremendous source of issues around confidence, fear, inspiration, detetermination, motivation, doubt, and on and on. Trusting our feelings is tricky business when it comes to mapping a life well-lived. How many of us would have finished high school if we had been allowed to follow our feelings? How many other things would be left unfinished if we hadn’t pushed through some point of unhappiness?

What makes you happy?

The issue with happiness as a reference point does not stop with its shaky pillars of feelings. We often talk about doing things that “make us happy.” We want to be around people who “make us happy.” We talk about happiness in holistic terms as if it is an end state and anything that does not lead us to this end-state is wrong or unhealthy. Expecting someone or something else to “make us  happy” is a sure path to disappointment.  Not because they failed us, but because we failed to realize that no one exists to make another person happy. In a similar fashion, our pursuits do not exist to make us happy – though we may feel happiness while pursuing them.

Our pursuits don’t exist to make us happy? Why would I pursue something that doesn’t make me happy? My father-in-law used to describe happiness as a by-product, not part of the equation. There is no road map or path that leads directly to happiness. We find ourselves there by living fully, by pursuing the best version of our self. Happiness should not be an objective for its own sake, it comes from our efforts to live our best life. It comes from using our gifts to their fullest while becoming the best person we can be. Our pursuits don’t exist to make us happy but we may feel happiness while pursuing them.

The paradox of happiness

Another issue with happiness as an endpoint is that by its nature, it is a selfish pursuit. Herein lies the paradox. As we pursue happiness, we are in fact chasing our own gratification and the more we gratify ourselves the shorter lived is our state of being happy. How does this occur? Because happiness ultimately stems from what we give. If our greatest gifts are the ones that multiply when given away, what does that say about what we keep to ourselves? The irony is that we find happiness when we don’t pursue it and focus instead on giving the best of ourselves. In the end, we are the greatest determiners of our own happiness.

Let’s summarize some basic tenets of happiness:

  1. Happiness comes from within.
  2. YOU are the determining factor of your happiness. Your attitude is the driver.
  3. Being all that you can be drives happiness.
  4. Giving selflessly feeds happiness.

Happiness is not:

  • a feel good life
  • an easy life
  • getting everything you want
  • winning all the time
  • avoiding disappointment

Happiness will result from:

  • overcoming adversity
  • recovering from hurt
  • having a worthy objective
  • seeing possibility and seeking it
  • embracing hope
  • believing in yourself
  • believing in others
  • giving of yourself fully
  • loving fully
  • forgiving
  • doing the right thing
  • seeking excellence
  • allowing others to love you

A happy by-product

When I consider my conversation with that group of entrepreneurs, it is clear to me that making happiness the objective when setting the direction of your business, or your life, is not a good idea. Happiness is not an endpoint,  it is a by-product. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t balance priorities and preferences when pursuing work, family, hobby, social, or any other investments of your time. Investing yourself fully in your priorities may result in the by-product of happiness but you can’t get there directly.

One final note. Like feelings, your priorities will change with different phases of your life. That is perfectly fine. Remember that the principles that lead to a life well-lived (and therein happiness) will not change. A life well-lived demands that we give our best, love our best, and forgive as best we can. The better we can live these foundational principles, the closer we will live to happiness. You might find that the wonderful by-product of living this way is that you no longer worry about being happy.


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