Want to be happy? Stop trying to be
All humans want a little of the good life, but is the sole pursuit of happiness actually making us a society of sad, selfish and solitary creatures?
All of us are striving to be happy. We put considerable time and effort into doing so yet we often get caught up in bad habits and cycles of misery. We might even sometimes wonder whether happiness is a worthy pursuit at all.
In my book, Happiness By Design, I have made a case for the concept of happiness to include achieving feelings of purpose (or meaning and fulfilment) alongside feelings of pleasure (such as joy and excitement). For example, when I am teaching students, I am differently happy to when I am on a night out: the first is more fulfilling, the second is more fun.
There are also two common roadblocks to consider when we’re talking about what makes us happy. The first is the notion that the pure pursuit of happiness causes people to care only about themselves, so that they become narcissistic and selfish. And the second notion is that, paradoxically, focusing on happiness can end up making us miserable.
But when happiness is defined according to feelings of both pleasure and purpose, it becomes easy to see how helping others is good for happiness. We get a warm glow from helping other people, which comes in large part from the purpose we feel when we do so. Helping other people is, in fact, one of the main causes of happiness. Charitable giving and volunteering have both been shown to make people happier. Doing good is entirely consistent with feeling good.
Read more about emotion:
- National happiness mapped over the last 200 years
- We don't understand how emotions work. A neuroscientist explains why
This definition of happiness also explains why being productive at work, or learning a new skill, feels good: not only because it is fun, but because it feels fulfilling. Thus, we should each seek to find the right balance between pleasure and purpose in the activities we engage in, and from the people we spend time with.
You may then wonder if it is selfish to pursue altruistic acts simply because you believe they will make you happier. Well, research has shown that those who construct “moral hierarchies” of charity which seek to put acts that contain no personal benefit at the top of tree are, in fact, actively discouraging people from helping others. There is robust evidence showing that reminding individuals of the personal benefits that come from helping others actually encourages more behaviour that helps other people.
We also see higher rates of volunteering when potential volunteers are reminded that prosociality - behaviour intended to benefit others - increases happiness. So, we should do much more to celebrate the 'selfishness' of selflessness, and not make claims about the superiority of purely selfless acts that the evidence does not support.
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The second common mistake is about focus. As mentioned earlier, some researchers believe that the pursuit of happiness can actually make us less happy. What this means is that we should not be pursuing happiness directly. Rather, evidence suggests that it is the pursuit of the main causes of happiness that will result in us being happier.
Listening to music, for example, has been shown to be one of the most important determinants of happiness. It’s such an obvious but overlooked way to feel good: do more of it, and you will be happier. But don’t think about how happy it’s making you whilst you listen, as that will make you feel less good.
In fact, if you’re constantly monitoring how you feel in general, you’ll feel less good.
To take another example, getting totally lost in the zone with your work and achieving a state of flow is less likely to occur if you pay attention to how it is making you feel. Concentrating on the feelings merely takes you out of that immersion in the activity. You will be happier when you are not constantly being distracted by thoughts of whether you are, in fact, happy.
So, we do need to spend some time working out what brings us pleasure and purpose and the right balance between them. But once we have conducted that audit, we need to pay attention to the activities themselves rather than to how those activities make us feel.
We might also worry about becoming so obsessed with being happy in itself that we forget to enjoy how things feel along the way. But if you pay attention to the activities that make you feel good, you will be happier without even having to think about it. And who wouldn’t want that…?