Is Pursuit of Happiness Making You Miserable?

human flourishing

The happiness disease?

The idea that happiness is the most important goal in life has a lot going for it. Philosophers, Eastern and Western, from John Stuart Mill, to the Buddha, testify to its importance. Visit the psychology section of your local bookstore and every second title, it seems, is about happiness. I’m going to suggest that there is much more to the good life than happiness, and that the pursuit of happiness is a recipe for misery.

Lets do a thought experiment:

  • Is a soldier, fighting overseas for their country, happy?
  • Does caring for a sick child, or sick parent, make you happy?
  • Did summitting Everest make Sir Edmund Hillary happy?
  • Was Mother Theresa, in her work with the world’s poor, happy?
  • Are people who work for causes, say environmental, social justice, or greater freedom, happy?
  • Is a scientist, who devotes a lifetime to furthering our understanding of the world, happy? Is an entrepreneur working 100 hours a week to make their dream come true?

The answer is “perhaps” – maybe they are – but happiness was not what drives such pursuits. Yet, we admire such lives. We admire the virtues we see: valor, courage, service, honor, dedication, honesty, compassion, and achievement. Happiness is at besta secondary consideration. Just perhaps, personal happiness is not even part of the equation.

We all want to be happy, but personal happiness is too shallow a goal, and pursuing it leads to lives that are too shallow. Aristotle recognized this – maintaining that the “good life” was a life that was virtuous. He called this “good life” eudaemonia, which today translates to flourishing.

The pursuit of happiness is a recipe for misery.

What is flourishing?

Flourishing does not dismiss the idea of happiness, but rather adds four more dimensions: spiritual fulfillment, engagement, relationships, and achievement. Taken together, these are a more fulsome way of creating a your life.

  • Spiritual fulfillment is not a particular belief system, but rather the notion our work matters, makes a difference, creates value beyond just ourselves, and leaves a legacy.
  • Engagement derives from the work of Hungarian psychologist Czikszentmihalyi (cheek-sent-mee-hi), who studied thousands of people in various professions. His proposal is that when we stretch our talents to capacity, our sense of self dissolves—we become one with the task. This is a feeling of intense absorption, sometimes referred to as “being in the zone” or “in a state of flow.”
  • The relationships dimension acknowledges two things. First, that a principal source of well-being (and of health and longevity to boot) is the quality of our relationships. Second, we all have personal “stakeholders”: spouses, children, extended family, and communities. Our choices in life must serve and respond to more than just our needs. We flourish by giving to and receiving from others.
  • Achievement matters to human beings—the sense of pride created by building cathedrals, slaying dragons, and winning at the game of life. Although each of us defines “winning” differently, it nevertheless is an important part of human’s psychological makeup.
  • Finally, we return to happiness – what psychologists call “positive affect,” or happiness. While this remains important, it is rightfully placed alongside things that matter more, or equally.

Applying the concept of flourishing to your life

So how do you make this practical? One way is to use a psychometric instrument and evaluate your life along these dimensions. Such a questionnaire can be found in my new book Reboot Your Career, co-authored with Tim Ragan. (The book is out on September 30th, 2016.)

Use the questionnaire to ask yourself the hard questions. Then, create goals that lead you toward the answers you want.

Happiness is important, but it isn’t as important as our culture, or self-help gurus would have you believe. Pursuing it may actually, paradoxically, make you unhappy as other more important dimensions of the good life (the virtues, eudaemonia, flourishing) are ignored. Too much focus on it leads to shallow lives, full of some of the excesses we see around us – consumerism, vulgarity, focus on appearances, short-termism, and selfishness.

I’m an author whose “beat” is helping business leaders use science and philosophy to make better strategic decisions, implement change, innovate, change culture, and create workplaces where talent flourishes. My most recent book, The Science of Organizational Change has been hailed as “the most important book on change in fifteen years.” 

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