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Is chasing happiness a realistic goal?

Originally published Aug 12, 2019 on thriveglobal.com

As a cognitive behavioral psychologist for over 20 years, about 80% of my clients are struggling in therapy because they don’t feel they’re being successful at achieving overall happiness in their lives, and that’s a conservative estimate. This pathological need we have to chase being happy has been legitimized by the teachings of philosophers, scientists, and psychologists and then promoted in books, workbooks, podcasts and articles as an obtainable goal. However, that is actually “Fake News.” For most of my life, I was guilty of chasing happiness too. Then around five years after doing a deep dive into some of this literature on happiness I realized that none of them promise to provide what has become the gold standard definition of “happy.”

The origins of “happiness” date back to 2,500 years ago

The psychological and philosophical pursuit of happiness began in China, India and Greece nearly 2,500 years ago with Confucius, Buddha, Socrates, and Aristotle. We can find remarkable similarities between the insights of these thinkers and the modern “Science of Happiness.” Buddha was clear that the “Middle Path” is the goal to happiness. He believed happiness was found in a peaceful mind. He talks nothing of exuberance, but instead of deep equanimity. Socrates talked about happiness as defined by inner tranquility that could not be affected by the external. He believed happiness was found in “agency.” Aristotle believed happiness was found in achieving “The Mean”, a balance between excesses. He believed that in order to achieve happiness, it is not enough to think or intend to do something, people actually have to do it.  

If we fast forward to the contemporary world, the debate and dialogue about happiness continues.  Abraham Maslow, a noted modern psychologist talked about happiness, and the “hierarchy of needs” resulting from the process of self-actualization and the process of fulfilling one’s true potential. While Martin Seligman, who some consider the father of positive psychology talked about “authentic happiness” and targeted such things as: knowledge, courage, temperance and transcendence as necessary for happiness. He also doesn’t define the feeling of happiness as one feeling sunny or radiant all of the time. Even Ed Diener, (aka “Dr. Happiness”) whose research in positive psychology has been met with some criticism, reminds us that it is important to set realistic expectations when it comes to happiness. He also believes that happiness is ultimately not about the feeling of being happy, but about a meaningful existence.

How do you define “happy”?

So, when did the confusion start and what’s realistic? The intellectuals, advocates and psychologists who researched happiness operated based on the pure definition of happy, which is appropriately “feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.” When you look up the definition of pleasure, pleasure is defined as “happy contentment;” which may seem disparate and create some tension when authors are identifying the happiness goal. To make matters worse the dictionary synonyms for happy run amok from its original meaning which is grounded in the word “contentment.” The synonyms are: cheerful, merry, joyful, gleeful, carefree, untroubled, delighted, smiling, beaming, grinning, good spirits, good mood, buoyant, sunny and radiant.

Today, when people think of the word “happy” the definition has been lost. In fact, some recent authors have even leveraged people’s thrill at the idea of chasing exuberance instead of the reality of what they know is where happy lies, which is in contentment. Once you do an in depth assessment and read into their philosophies it becomes clear that the message is one of satisfaction, not exuberant joy. In fact, over the past year, I have been encouraging my clients dealing with feelings of discontent over their inability to sustain happiness to focus on achieving satisfaction.

Satisfaction, a better but “not-as-sexy,” alternative to chasing happiness!

I believe we need to stop chasing the unachievable golden chalice which was never the pure definition of happy anyway. Let’s fight for what is achievable. We need a change in the vernacular. Maybe the word isn’t as sexy, but a lifetime of satisfaction is achievable and sustainable. Contentment is achievable. All of the most noted philosophers, scientists and psychologists agree on that.

And, yes, there will still be moments of joy and effervescence at times and they will be all the more beautiful as you embrace the steadiness of just feeling fine.  I felt one of those moments of joy recently, when one of clients who had been troubled with her inability to be happy called me to share an important decision she had made. She had been receptive and responsive to the idea of seeking satisfaction instead of happiness. She calmly stated she finally felt capable of managing her life without therapy. She didn’t say she was “happy,” but she said, “I feel good, I’m fine.”