Are We Hung Up on Happiness?

The U.S. Declaration of Independence gives us the right to pursue happiness. That's all well and good, but are we finding that the pursuit of happiness can make us miserable?
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The U.S. Declaration of Independence gives us the right to pursue happiness. That's all well and good, but are we finding that the pursuit of happiness can make us miserable?

In today's culture more people are pursuing happiness and not succeeding, leaving them frustrated and living with a sense of failure. Making matters worse, the pursuit of happiness can make us self-absorbed, which is guaranteed to make us unhappy!

Even though we have the right to pursue happiness, that doesn't mean it's a good idea. Most of us don't know how to achieve happiness. We think if we have enough wealth, we will be happy, but that doesn't work. We think if our children are successful, we will be happy, so we push them to be successful and then everyone is unhappy.

My mother used to tell me that if we have our health, we will be happy. Well, I know a lot of healthy, miserable people, and I know a lot of people who are disabled like me and quite happy, thank you.

So not only do we not know how to get happiness, I'm not even sure we know what it is. Is it a state of being, or is it a temporary emotion? I had soft-shell crabs the other night and was very happy during dinner, but about 20 minutes after dinner I was miserable because I had eaten too much! I felt such great joy at my daughter's wedding and when I watched my other daughter give a lecture. That joy lasted longer than the soft-shell crabs, but it didn't last 24 hours.

In his best-selling book "Stumbling on Happiness," psychologist Dan Gilbert suggests that all our decisions are about making our future selves happy. Think about it. Some people get married because they think it will make them happier, and some people divorce for the same reason. Others eat a lot of comfort food in order to find happiness, while others deprive themselves of food for the same reason.

Okay, so we don't know what happiness is, and we don't know how to achieve it. My advice? Stop looking for happiness.

I think we are misguided in our search for happiness, and the real hunger is for a sense of well-being. And in today's world, where we all are more isolated by technology, more driven by anxiety and have more fear of the future, our hunger for well-being may be greater than ever.

Well-being can be pretty easy to find, depending on where we look.

I recently treated a man who had been depressed off and on most of his life. As a result, he was always searching for happiness. He tried marriage and meditation, and still he was unhappy. At one point in his life he was a very successful businessman, but still he wasn't happy. He tried delving into his religion of Judaism sporadically over the years, but still no happiness. But in his religious search, he stumbled upon an Orthodox Jewish tradition that requires devotees to say 100 prayers of gratitude each day, and he thought that that might be something worth trying.

The first week he found 20 things a day that he felt grateful for, and then he increased it to 40. He said, "You know, Dan, when you are finding that many things, you really have to lower the bar on what you need to give thanks for. For the first time in my life, I gave thanks for my ability to breathe, to have a job and to have friends." After doing this for a few weeks, he said the world began to look a little different to him. Finally, he ended therapy, saying that he felt more comfortable inside himself and in this world than he ever had before. And he was grateful for that.

In my book "Learning from the Heart," I shared how my daughter had recently had life-threatening spinal surgery. The call came out of the blue, and in the wake of that call I was terrified. Once again I realized how fragile everything I held precious was. Towards the end of the chapter, I talked about a small gathering at my home, where my grandson Sam and his father were playing baseball on my lawn while a few of my closest friends spoke on the back deck. And while all of this activity was going on, I suddenly woke up to what was happening at that moment and realized that everything I loved and held precious was with me right that very moment. What I felt was beyond happiness; I felt deep gratitude and tenderness, but most of all, I felt love.