I’ve read several books about happiness in the past few years. Perhaps you have, too. There are a lot of them out there.
It’s what we all want, right? We tell each other, “I just want to be happy.” We look for expert advice.
I thought it was what I wanted, too. Until I really thought about it.
Stop for a moment and consider: Is happiness really what you want?
I turn to the dictionary when I’m digging up the true meaning of a word we tend to throw around without thinking, and “happiness” is no exception. Here’s the Merriam-Webster definition that best suits the sort of happiness we’re talking about:
a : a state of well-being and contentment : joy
b : a pleasurable or satisfying experience
Sounds nice, yes?
Actually, no. Where is the movement, the growth, the evolution? Where is the progress? Where are the learning opportunities? Is pleasure and contentment all we get with happiness? Do we want to spend our entire lives in a state of placid satisfaction?
Happiness, as defined above, sounds like a rather boring, flat-line existence. It is a static state in which you are content. It is fixed. It is something to attain and then maintain. It implies a destination instead of dynamic growth. You achieve happiness…and then what? You just…keep being content? Forever and ever?
I want more than that. I don’t just stay content, pleased, or satisfied. I’m ok with the downsides. They’re part of the journey.
[Also? Any word we use on a daily basis to describe banal feelings ("I'm happy the supermarket had strawberries on sale!") and cute animals ("Aww, that baby sea otter looks so happy cuddled up next to its mother!") is not one I want describing my ultimate life goal.]
Alternatives to Happiness
So what do I want instead?
I want a way of living instead of a state to attain. I want growth, evolution, transformation, every day that I am alive. I don’t need sunshine from now until I die. I can weather the storms and come out stronger on the other side. I can learn from mistakes, reach ever higher. There is beauty in the breakdown, learning in the failures. My scars make me unique. My hard-won triumphs mamke me strong. And I would not trade the richness of truly varied experience for anything.
I don’t need to live in a pretty, happy box — nor do I want to. And if that means I’m rejecting the aspirations of the masses, then so be it.
There are alternative goals to happiness. And I think when people say they want happiness, they often mean one such goal. Things I strive for, for instance, include:
- Authenticity – to always be moving closer to my true self in the way I live my life and exist in the world
- Fulfillment – to feel that I am doing what I’m meant to do to my fullest abilities, to believe what I do matters, and to know that I am making a difference
- Presence – to experience whatever comes my way in life, to not miss out on the moments because I am focused on a point in the future or the past
Out of these, I can begin to build a vision for my life, for the way I want to live and the highest aims I want to accomplish. And to me, this vision is infinitely more motivating and inspirational than the clichéed notion of happiness we often revere.
How many of us have taken the time to consider what this happiness we’re pursuing really means to us?
It seems to me that’s kind of an important question.
What’s Your Take?
How do you define happiness? Is happiness what you’re after, or are you seeking something else?