The Pursuit of Happiness

Updated: May 23, 2020

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

The United States Declaration of Independence famously coined the phrase "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." But what does happy actually look like?

Today, we're safer, richer, healthier - and more miserable - than every before. In his book The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty, David Meyer explains, "Compared with their grandparents, today's young adults have grown up with much more affluence, slightly less happiness, and much greater risk of depression and assorted social pathology." This is the source of the paradox, because "our becoming much better off over the last four decades has not been accompanied by one iota of increased well-being."

Here's what we've learned about happiness and where you will (and will not) find it.

Money and Happiness

As income goes up, does life satisfaction go up? There are a ton of cool studies look at the correlation between your income and life satisfaction. Danny Kahneman and Angus Deaton, both Nobel Prize winners in economics, looked at how income predicts "positive affects" (smiling, happiness, daily enjoyment), "not blue" (not reporting worry, sadness), "stress-free" (did not report stress on the previous day).

Danny and Angus found that once your basic needs are met (about $75,000), money has a negligible effect on your happiness. So does money really make us happier? Only to a point. But after that, not really.

Materialism and Happiness

"If only I had _____, I would be so happy." We buy stuff to be happy. We think great stuff makes us happier, otherwise we would not pay the money to get it. But does great stuff actually make us happier? Data suggests that's not the case.

Science also shows that thinking about stuff, or being materialistic, actually makes us worse off than we would be at baseline. Over a 15 year study, researchers found that materialists had lower life satisfaction than non-materialists, and they had more mental health disorders. So get rid of those materialist attitudes now, because it's not going to help you later.

So does cool stuff actually make us happier? No, and seeking it out actually makes us less happy than we could be.

Marriage and Happiness

True love. Happily ever afters. Glass slippers and Disney kisses.

If you just meet somebody, then you'll be happy. Or will you? Does marriage actually make us happier? The stats reported that married people are in fact happier...for about 1-2 years. Then afterwards, they are as happy as they were when they were non-married.

So does marriage make you happier? For a little bit. But then you go back to baseline. So we recommend you find happiness before you find 'The One'.

Makeovers and Happiness

Perfect face, flat abs, tight buns. It's a visual illusion. We think it's going to make us happy. But studies show that once we get to our ideal weight, we realize we're not as happy as we think we'll be, and that makes us more depressed.

Cosmetic surgery, all the negative measures (physical appearance, suicidal ideation, alcohol abuse, conduct problems) actually get worse.

So do these makeovers actually make us happy? No. And achieving our ideal looks actually reduces well-being.

What The Data Tells Us

When you look at the data, a good job, a fat wallet, a flat belly, a hot husband, and all the other trappings of life, don't actually make us happier.

What this means is that most people are clueless about what to do to be happy. And what you're spending your time on, investing your energy in, pouring your life into, is just bound to fail to make you happy. And hanging our happiness on external conditions makes us vulnerable to comparison, the addiction to more, and a deeper sense of dissatisfaction.

Shawn Achor, Harvard psychologist, explains that we assume our external worlds are predictive of our happiness levels. In reality if I knew everything about your external world, I could only predict 10% of your longterm happiness. 90% of your longterm happiness is predicted not by your external world, but by the way your brain processes the world - or by the meaning you assign to your circumstances.

The good news is, you have a lot of control over your happiness. The bad news is, you are most likely spending most of your time and energy on the wrong things. Today is the day we change that.

Meaning and Happiness

What we all want - more than money, materials, makeovers, and marriage - is meaning. We want to live lives that matter; to make an impact. The secret to happiness and the key to well-being isn't in pleasure in possessions, but in a strong sense of purpose.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (prounced "Me-high Cheek-Sent-Me-High"), is prominent psychologist and pioneer in the field of happiness, creativity, and human fulfillment. He asks, "What makes life worth living?" Noting that money simply cannot make us happy, he began to study the secret to happiness. He interviewed creatives - artists and scientists - to understand what made them feel that it was worth spending their lives doing things for which many of them didn't expect either fame or fortune.

They explained the work itself made their life meaningful, because the work itself was worth doing. He went on to interview top CEOs who had been nominated by their peers as leaders ethics and social responsibility. They defined success as something that helps others, and at the same time makes you feel happy as you are working at it.

A Life of Significance

Your happiness then, won't be found in the pursuit of materials, but in the pursuit of meaning; not in extrinsic reward, but intrinsic reward. In his book, Intentional Living, John C. Maxwell describes this shift from 'success' to 'significance.' He defines success as a life lived for yourself (i.e. salary, status, and stuff.) But a life of significance is about 1.) knowing your purpose, 2.) growing in your potential, and 3.) sewing into the lives of others.

So, if we haven't said it enough, more stuff won't make you more happy. What will make you happy, is using your gifts, doing what you love, and making a difference in the lives of others.

So here's to life, liberty, and the pursuit of (real) happiness.

March 20th is the United Nations International Day of Happiness. It was originally started in 2006 by Jayme Illien, the founder of "happytalism", an economic system and socio-political philosophy to advance happiness, wellbeing, and freedom as a fundamental human right for all human beings. In 2015, the UN launched the Sustainable Development Goals, which recognizes health and well-being as a critical one of those goals. The relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world, and their recognition in public policy objectives.


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