We Seek Happiness, But Happiness, Like Success, is Elusive
Above any other goal, humans seek happiness. Aristotle came to this conclusion more than 2,300 years ago when he reasoned that happiness is sought for its own sake, whereas every other goal – health, wealth, power and others – is only valued because we expect that it will bring us happiness.
While much has changed since Aristotle came to this conclusion, one could argue that we are no closer to understanding and teaching the path to happiness than the ancients. That is Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s argument in a book called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced chick-sent-me-hi) states that happiness,
“…is not something that just happens. It is not a result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power can control. It is, in fact, a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated and defended privately by each person.”
To seek happiness is to grab water. Not only do we feel continually frustrated by our failure, we also feel miserable in the process. Another way to state this: happiness is a byproduct, not an end product.
Humans Seek Happiness, But Are We Just Grabbing at Water?
If Aristotle was right and happiness is what we seek above all else, and it is also true that the more we seek it the more it escapes us, can mankind’s eternal quest for happiness be likened to the futility of a dog who chases its own tail? Are we truly grabbing at water?
One clue might be found in the foreword of Man’s Search for Meaning, written by famed Austrian psychologist, Viktor Frankl.
“Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it your target, the more you’re going to miss it. For success, like happiness, can’t be pursued; it must ensue — as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.”
Happiness and Unhappiness Are Not Mutually Exclusive
Here’s another clue. One of the biggest misconceptions about happiness in our culture today is that happiness and unhappiness are mutually exclusive. Many perceive them as opposite emotions.
But aren’t we really experiencing a sliding scale of happiness? Isn’t it possible that we can be happy and (to a degree) unhappy at the same time? Think about how happy you feel right now and grade your happiness. Give yourself an “A” for totally and completely happy, a “B” for relatively happy, and so on. An “F” would be appropriate if you’re completely miserable.
My personal and informal research reveals that most people give themselves a less than perfect grade, even an A minus, when asked to evaluate their happiness in this way. When I press further for an explanation, almost everyone responds in a similar way. They obliquely and rather flippantly acknowledge that they are, in fact, happy to some degree, and quickly jump to the reasons for their unhappiness and how and why they could be happier.
More About the Grabbing Water Part
And now we can really get to the “grabbing water” part: the more we try to measure our happiness, the more we are forced to evaluate, focus on, and even amplify our level of unhappiness.
Charles de Montesquieu, a French philosopher in the first half of the 18th Century, said,
“If we only wanted to be happy, it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, and that is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are.”
And yes, 300 years after the time of Montesquieu, Facebook, Instagram and other social media outlets give us a canvas to paint our lives exactly the way we want others to see them, proving the above quote to be a valid observation of human behavior.
Consider Your Approach When You Seek Happiness
If history is any indication, happiness will continue to be our preoccupation for years to come. I just hope that we realize sooner rather than later that we can never quench our thirst for happiness as long as we insist on grabbing at it.
I would also suggest that if you consider a shift in how you approach happiness, as a byproduct and not an end product, it could dramatically change your experience of life, and your relationship with happiness.
© Joe Caruso and Caruso Leadership. Reprints available with permission.
- Acknowledging and expressing gratitude is key to success and happiness. Read more about The Role of Gratitude in Becoming Who We Are.
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- Preview free content and success strategies from The Power of Losing Control and start trying the concepts today.