On March 20th, the world celebrated International Happiness Day. You missed it? That’s too bad. Or maybe, it isn’t. It’s possible that by missing out on Happiness Day, you might have saved yourself from the popular misstep that many other people in our society have tripped over. That’s right, happiness, or the pursuit of happiness as an end goal or a value in your life, just may be the very thing that’s causing you (and many others) to feel bad in the first place.
Yes, this is counter-intuitive in our culture. When even the Declaration of Independence encourages you to pursue happiness, the idea that pursuing happiness may be a problem is, well, a problem for most people! It’s one of those things that gets your brain tied in knots. But, as Dr. Tania Lombrozo wrote for NPR.org, the problem is the Western conception of happiness and how that drives our pursuit of happiness.
In our society, happiness is an individual ideal. I do things that I enjoy, and then I am happy. I get a new, giant TV for my apartment and I feel good (hence I am happy). I get a raise at work, I am happy. My friends call me to hang out, I am happy. In each of these situations, the emphasis is on what I get, how I benefit, and how something makes me feel. My happiness is about me. That’s because culturally, America is an individualistic culture that values independence. That’s certainly not a bad thing, but it does impact the way we look at the world, and influences our ideas and understanding of what defines happiness.
This isn’t the case everywhere, however. Many Western cultures, like China and Japan, are what psychologists call Collectivist Cultures, where individuals consider themselves first and foremost as part of the fabric of society. In these cultures, happiness is not defined by the individual’s feelings, rather it is marked by connection to others in society. And, in these countries, the pursuit of happiness is actually associated with positive outcomes (while in the US it has been associated with increases in depression, loneliness, and feelings of disappointment).
But, perhaps there is a way that we can use this information to help us achieve this fleeting and often elusive ideal of happiness. I’m willing to bet that a number of people who just read that last paragraph had a thought like: “Wait a minute, when I think of being happy, I think of having my friends and family and social connections around me! Perhaps I am more collectivist than I even knew!” If you had that thought, or something similar, then you’re in a good place to actually be happy.
Let’s attempt something new … let’s shift away from having the end goal be happiness. Then, instead of happiness as the goal, let’s think about those things that really matter to you (perhaps it is the aforementioned connection to others in society). What if those were the “goal” and the idea of happiness was nothing more than a byproduct that may or may not happen if you worked towards the goal? How would your life change if you weren’t invested in the “Pursuit of Happiness” and instead were in the “Pursuit of Things that Matter to You?”
The Pursuit of Things that Matter to You is a never-ending journey that doesn’t always bring happiness. I really care about being a thoughtful and caring parent to my children, but that doesn’t always make me happy (like when they are sad, I am sad. Or when they are in a bad mood and are crabby, I am often in a bad mood and am crabby myself!). At the same time, when I am pursuing Things that Matter (and happiness isn’t the goal or even an expected outcome), I am collecting the ingredients necessary for a life that will yield more happy moments than not.
So, the goal is not to try and feel happy in the moment. The goal is to try and shift our perspective and work towards having more things your life that matter to you, which will make it easier to feel excited, engaged, and even happy in the long term.