Why We Must Actively Pursue Happiness

Photo: AMagill

Recently, I’ve come across a number of articles—both online and off—warning of the dangers of deliberately aiming to become happy. In Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning, for example, he argues that “happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.” Though I consider Frankl a great thinker and his book a masterwork, on this point I wholeheartedly disagree.

The notion may have merit that if we only aim at the right things we will as a matter of course become happy, but I fail to see how pretending we’re aiming at them for some reason other than happiness would make happiness more likely “to ensue.” In fact it would make happiness less likely for the same reason great books, beautiful paintings, and stirring music must be an artist’s main aim when he goes about creating them: such great works don’t happen by accident. There may not be only one path to creating a great work of art or a beautiful piece of music, but the number of paths that will lead to greatness are far fewer than the number of paths that won’t. Similarly, more and more research is showing us there exist good and bad ways to find happiness—that some things we do are more likely to make us unhappy than happy no matter how convinced we are to the contrary. But if we don’t make happiness our explicit goal, why would we ever ask ourselves which ones we should choose? Why would we ever wonder if one path might be better than another, and therefore choose it?

Without a conscious decision to pursue happiness, we’re more likely to confuse the means to happiness with happiness itself (that is, to confuse happiness with money, for example, or with having a spouse or children). And if the means we choose to bring us happiness fails to do so, we’ll be more likely to continue to choose it, thinking we only need more of it or something else like it but better. Certainly, consciously pursuing happiness may set our expectations high and therefore increase our risk for disappointment, but if we don’t actively seek to be happy we’re far more likely not to become happy at all.

Many people balk at the notion that one path to happiness might be better than others because they think that happiness is dependent upon external things (that what makes one person happy will be different from what makes another person happy), and therefore that no two paths to happiness will be the same. But while the things two different people enjoy may be different—while their attachments may be different—what secures their happiness will be the same. As I argue in my book The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self, happiness requires two related but ultimately separate things: the resilience to withstand the bumps, shocks, and tragedies that life inevitably brings to everyone, and the ability to feel joy. And though our attachments are indeed what bring us joy, without a high enough life-condition, we’re incapable of enjoying the things to which we’re attached (think of how many millionaires are unhappy).

What’s required to maintain a high life-condition? Simply put: wisdom. The wisdom, among other things, to appreciate what we have, to understand and act on the knowledge that compassionate action has the greatest power to make us happy, and, most crucially, to continuously examine our beliefs and our behavior in order to make them truer and better. Leveraging life experience—good and bad—as opportunities to shatter the delusions that populate our thinking and prevent our life-condition from rising to the dizzying height of which its capable is the true path to indestructible happiness. But it’s a hard enough process that if you don’t intentionally aim to accomplish it, genuine, long-lasting happiness is likely to elude you.

Next Week: Becoming A Citizen

8 comments to Why We Must Actively Pursue Happiness

  • Good to see an article that looks at the happiness “backlash” in more depth.

    Has happiness become too “risky” to aspire to in this culture? Or are we buffering ourselves as we often do against loss?

    I think you’ve hit the crux of it when you say “Without a conscious decision to pursue happiness, we’re more likely to confuse the means to happiness with happiness itself (that is, to confuse happiness with money, for example, or with having a spouse or children). And if the means we choose to bring us happiness fails to do so, we’ll be more likely to continue to choose it, thinking we only need more of it or something else like it but better.”

    Either-or thinking, “dualism,” is very much a factor in these confused quests for happiness. Perhaps articles like this one will help us to reach definitions of happiness with as you say, greater “wisdom.”

    Enjoyed the post,
    George

  • Patti

    Every couple of years, I read Dennis Prager’s Happiness Is a Serious Problem. While the book’s title is a bit over the top, its primary message is critical—and consistent with your argument. He says happiness is an obligation to ourselves and to others. I wonder if you’ve read his writings and, if so, what you think of his take on happiness.

    Patti: I haven’t read him, but his message sounds right on to me.

    Alex

  • rdp

    A very provocative post, Alex (provocative in a good way).

    I agree that the only path to true happiness requires certain kinds of wisdom, but when I attempt to put this theory through its paces in the context of real lives, I run into obstacles. Wisdom needs defining. There’s local wisdom, for this time and place, and “for all foreseeable time” wisdom. People can sometimes achieve local wisdom and a measure of happiness, but such happiness is vulnerable to unexpected tumultuous shifts in the environment and usually comes at the expense of breadth of vision.

    There’s also the matter of correctly seeing one’s abilities. If you misjudge your talents and capacities, you will struggle to find meaningful action which, in turn, will seriously compromise your potential for happiness. I was struck by this quotation from Philip Mann describing his book, Wulfsyarn, “The book is about a man who was profoundly ignorant of his own nature and the result was calamity.”

    Perhaps there is some calculus to describe the relationship among self-knowledge, knowledge of the world and others, resiliency, and capacity for compassion and joy, but the particulars elude me. Sometimes people are “happy” because they simply refuse to see what others cannot help but see. Some people are UNhappy for the same reason!

    I agree wholeheartedly that having a sense of what happiness is—true happiness, rather than mere gratification—tends to be a necessary condition for finding it, but it may also be true be that happiness sometimes just results from the unknown calculus. And maybe, for some people, this calculus hinges on remaining unaware of whatever it is that propels them towards it.

  • mtk

    I read Viktor Frankl’s argument as you cannot force yourself to be happy (like you cannot force yourself into sleep). Happiness will then ensue when you are less and less self-preoccupied (including a preoccupation of being happy) and more and more giving.

  • Elle

    This is such a seemingly simple but truly profound topic. Happiness is what all humankind aspires to, perhaps all creation? I’d like to add the following borrowed thoughts which I have found nourishing, especially when trying to pursue happiness or to be happy is so difficult. Does it ever get “easier”? (I’m inclined to think not, as I think life isn’t meant to be “easy.”)

    All joy in this world comes from wanting others to be happy, and all suffering in this world comes from wanting only oneself to be happy.
    Shantideva

    We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.
    Buddha

    Thanks for this post, Alex. It’s so fitting given this time of year.

  • I like this topic. I agree happiness must be “pursued.” I happen to prefer the word contentment but I do pursue it. I know if I just set at home and wait to be happy it won’t happen, so I look for things and people to be with and do things with and pursue my idea of contentment. Reading, riding, and visiting mostly do it for me, and it gives me a level of contentment I can live with. I pursue it, but I try not to cling to it. I am happy alone too.

  • I have been looking forward to receiving your Sunday night blog for the past 6 months or so. Today I bought myself a Christmas present. Your new book, The Undefeated Mind. I have been reading it for about 3 hours and find it extremely compelling.

    you have a very good way of telling your story in a manner that is easily readable yet intellectually stimulating.

    I hope your regular readers consider buying your book. I am certainly happy I did it.

    Sam: Delighted to hear it!

    Alex

  • jessica

    In my pursuit of happiness, keeping a journal has been very important for me because I can track my progress. I’m in recovery from drug addiction and I now aim to be happy. If I could find comfort in pain for so many years I can only imagine how wonderful happiness is. Thank you for your posts. I look forward to them each week.

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