What do you need to do in order to be truly happy?
Each new year, everyone earnestly resolves to become happy, declaring that this is the year when the search of happiness finally pays off. Or so we think. All the shopping therapy we tried last year didn’t work. Getting a gym membership didn’t help. Traveling is nice, but it wasn’t the answer. Eating better food was tasty, but not the secret to eternal bliss. The new house was definitely an improvement, but now it’s taken for granted, plus some of the other houses on the block are nicer, anyway. The new career pays better, but in the end it’s just work. It turns out that all our grand designs on seizing happiness through some lifestyle change or new acquisition have fallen short. The quest for happiness must continue.
Now, I’m not saying that it’s pointless to exercise or eat nutritious food. Life is meant to be lived as well as we can. What I mean to say is that, if we are doing these things only because we think they’ll bring us a happiness that has thus far eluded us, and if we’re convinced that by doing this one next thing we’ll be dizzy with joy, we are destined for disappointment.
The search for happiness is making us sad. It has become a golden calf, an idol we covet as the goal and purpose of our lives. Listen closely to the way people describe happiness, the way it’s portrayed on television and in movies. We talk about it as if we deserve it, or as if lacking it means something has gone horribly wrong and we must make drastic personal changes in order to acquire it. Do you see what has happened? Happiness has become a commodity, an object we selfishly covet. The way we’ve come to think about happiness is like it’s a product with a price-tag. If you pay the price by, for instance, going to the gym and getting in shape, the expectation is that the cost will be worth it. If I put in the work at the gym, I expect my healthy, in-shape body to grant my desire for happiness, but it never quite does. Other examples are even more discouraging. People will cite the search for personal happiness to justify the most selfish of decisions, acting with self-centered irresponsibility. These choices always backfire, leaving us more discontented than before.
There’s a psychological reason why the search for happiness always falls short. Studies show that the more you value happiness, the less happy you are because it’s a paradox, meaning that if you focus on an ideal of happiness, when you actually are happy, you end up disappointed because it isn’t as happy as you think we should be. We become so convinced of what imaginary happiness is like that we miss it when we truly are happy. It’s a self-defeating process.
So how can we be happy?
First, we cannot expect that a New Year’s Resolution, a big purchase, or making a drastic life change will automatically bring happiness. These may be changes we want and need to make in our lives, but we should be making them for their own sake, not because of the perceived benefit of happiness somewhere down the road. The way to break the paradox, the secret to being happy, is really quite simple – stop obsessing over it.
St Augustine, a man who desperately searched for happiness (and failed) for the first half of life, finally gave up on chasing women, desire for fame, and career success to do some hard thinking about what had gone wrong in his quest for happiness. He realized that his motivations were harmful. They were a form of misplaced love. He wanted the emotional high of being happy, so he selfishly loved the wrong things, or loved the right things but in the wrong way. If we become obsessed with personal happiness, we will tend to love only what we think will benefit ourselves, and so the love is corrupt, ultimately it’s very self-centered.
The purpose of our existence is to give and receive real love, to find our happiness in forgetting about ourselves and opening our hearts to others. This is properly ordered love. Knowing this, it becomes obvious how an obsession with personal happiness will inevitably fail. Love of self paves the way to unhappiness.
Here’s a New Year’s Resolution worth making: Don’t worry about the search for happiness. Forgetting about ourselves, loving the people around us, delighting in their happiness, and cultivating gratitude for each day puts us on a different path. This path doesn’t promise personal happiness at the end of the rainbow; no, it’s much better, this path actually is happiness. If you give your love away, if you look to make other people happy first, when you look back at your life you’ll discover that, all along, you have been very, very happy.
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