“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”Ralph Waldo Emerson
While the pursuit of happiness is common among almost all humans, research has shown that the more we strive to find it, the more likely we are to be disappointed, often because we are looking for something unattainable rather than simple contentment.[i] Happiness doesn’t come from external events or circumstances, at least in ways that endure. It’s found internally.
The Myth of Having More Things
Many people are unaware of the actual science of happiness, which dispels many myths. One of the most common beliefs is, “When I get X, then I’ll be happy.” In this myth, happiness will arrive with a new job, a promotion, a raise, or a better boss, house, spouse or partner. Or maybe we expect happiness only when we have more money or a better body. Unfortunately, a well-documented phenomenon called “hedonic adaptation” causes us to become rapidly accustomed to changes in our circumstances and then settle into that new baseline with only a fleeting moment of increased happiness. Then we climb onto the hamster wheel of waiting again for whatever the magic goal is.
The myth that having more things will make us happy is believing that happiness comes from outside of us. The idea that money will bring us happiness has been disproven in multiple studies. Once a living wage that covers the basics for a reasonably comfortable life is received, additional amounts of money come with just momentary elevations in happiness. Despite this, many people live today as if the point of life is the accumulation of money as the only marker of success, making life a contest in which the winner always has more than others. The results of a study of more than 10,000 first-year college students at an Ivy League college looking at attitudes toward money at the ages of 18 and again at 37 are illuminating. Those who at 18 years of age stated that their primary goal in life was making lots of money were less satisfied with their lives two decades later.
The Power of Relationships
The reality is that having deep, lasting relationships and a sense of belonging are the most powerful contributors to happiness and life satisfaction. Helping others is also a source of deep and lasting happiness, well beyond collecting or accumulating things, because connections and contributions give us a sense of meaning and purpose. Importantly, we must be cautious not to overcommit, burn out, or care so much that we lose our ability to self-care. A full, happy life includes meaningful contributions to the world.
“Many people have the wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”Helen Keller
The Myth of Success Leading to Happiness
Another myth is that success leads to happiness. This belief is common, especially among professionals whose identity is tightly tied to their work. Understanding your personal definition of success can be helpful. However, according to the research, when we’re happy, we’re more likely to have success. Other research has found that there are many contributors to happiness, including our genes and our life circumstances. Despite this, the key is to create our own happiness by engaging in happiness-promoting activities and in leading a good, full life.
The Myth of Happiness as a Destination
The myth of happiness as a destination is a powerful one. The notion that happiness is a place we’ll arrive at later is simply not true. Happiness is more of a mindset and way of life, with daily intentional activities, than a destination we arrive at. We have the capacity to choose our response in every circumstance. As Victor Frankl wrote in his book Man’s Search for Meaning about his experience in a concentration camp, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” He added, “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance. Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”
Finding Happiness Later in Life
Difficulty, struggle and loss are common in most people’s lives, and they often contribute to a life of greater fulfillment and worth. Adversity can strengthen relationships and lead to feelings of gratitude, connection and love, causing us to rethink our priorities. Older people are generally happier and more satisfied with their lives, possibly because aging tends to come with wisdom and tools for dealing with disappointment, anxiety, and depression based on experience.
Evidence suggests that emotional well-being improves from early adulthood to old age, although some researchers write about a slump in contentment in middle age. In one study, emotional experience predicted mortality; controlling for age, sex and ethnicity, individuals who experienced more positive than negative emotions in everyday life were more likely to have survived over a 13-year period.[ii]
Happiness is here and now, found in the small joys of each day. Look for them!