What if the quest to be perpetually happy was actually making us miserable?
Summer 2012. Two thousands miles west of New York City, nearly 9,000 feet above sea-level. Deep into the Colorado Rockies, I’m sitting in the wood-clad home of soon-to-be friend, venture-capitalist, entrepreneur and deeply-wise and truthful explorer of life, Brad Feld. We’re taping a conversation for Good Life Project.
“Our goal,” Brad offers, speaking about himself and his wife Amy, “is that each of us, individually and together is to have a happy life. Happy and good mean the same thing. That’s it, that’s the goal. I don’t care about anything else.”
Further into the conversation, he adds:
“The components of that vary and there’s an acceptance that there’s lots of tragedy in the human condition…you have these huge moments of negative stimuli in the context of your own life, and then you have the ability to deal with them however you want and surround them with whatever you want…for the two of us, having a happy life is about focusing on the things you can impact, rather than focusing on the macro.”
Who doesn’t want to be happy? Who doesn’t want to laugh all day? It’s a wonderful state, deserving of a powerful seat at the good life table. Happiness has become a hot subject of study over the last two decades, along with the explosion of the field of positive psychology.
This near-mystical state comes with myriad benefits, beyond, well, being happy.
- Have more friends
- Are healthier
- Have better immune systems
- Are more active contributors to society
- Get more done at work.
The list of happy-related yumminess is long.
But, what exactly IS happiness? How do we GET it? And is happiness really a MUST for a good life? Let’s take these questions one at a time.
First, what “is” happiness?
Such a loaded question, devoid of a universal answer. Ask the average person on the street and the answer is usually “state-based.” It’s an emotion, a feeling, kind of like joy, upbeat, positive, you know…happy!
Drill down a bit, and the answers begin to expand out into the “life conditions” the lead to this state. One’s person’s happiness is being in the arms of love, another’s is coding a complex algorithm. Yet another finds it in the reduction of chronic pain from extreme to moderate, still suffering deeply, yet happier. Someone else might describe it as the feeling of besting competitors or finding justice after a long fight. In parts of the world where extreme poverty, starvation, violence and suffering are a part of daily existence, it might be described as a day with food or water, or a temporary lull in violence.
Ask a positive psychology researcher and you’ll get a different set of answers that integrate contributors, like connection, meaning and more. In her 2007 book, The How of Happiness, acclaimed researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky describes it as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”
Happiness researchers, in fact, cannot offer any universal, agreed-upon definition to their research subjects when conducting experiments. Which makes it challenging to draw broad conclusions. How do we know that, across different labs, cohorts and experiments, we’re all even talking about the same thing? Most rely on some variations of standard survey questions, like, “looking at your life as a whole, are you (1) very happy, (2) quite happy, (3) not very happy, or (4) not happy at all?” Subjects are asked to rate their happiness, but are never offered a definition. Because, they cannot be. It’s just too subjective.
So, we’re left with pieces of a puzzle that often come down to, “we just know it when we feel it, and it’s different for everyone.” This is part of the challenge when trying to make robust claims about happiness. We never quite know if we’re talking the same language, or truly describing the same thing.
Which brings us to those second and third questions.
How do we get happy? And do we need to be happy to live a good life?
Something interesting and a bit ironic happens when we pursue happiness as a primary goal, a mandatory pre-requisite to a life-well lived. The all-consuming quest to make ourselves happy can, in fact, lead to misery. In part, because we rapidly habituate to the big, quick hit sources we most often pursue. But also, and more subtly maybe, 100% up-time happiness is not a realistic aspiration. Nor, despite popular lore, should it be.
Happiness is a bit like fitness. You can train and orient your life to cultivate a solid base and keep relatively fit on a regular basis, but you cannot sustain peak condition for a more than a short window of time. Your body and mind need to cycle in and out. Peaks and valleys are natural and necessary. Expecting only peaks is setting yourself up for frustration and futility.
Beyond the fact that we are all wired, on some level, to cycle in and out of giggledom lies a stark reality.
We need the valleys as much as the peaks. Not necessarily depression or deep lows, but simply the chance to cycle back to baseline “things are good” or even” wow, that day sucked,” to provide the contrast necessary to know when we’re happy. It’s this contrast that also provides the context to see and embrace gratitude, to know when things are good, because you’ve seen when they’re not.
Emerging research, in fact, shows that the full spectrum of experiences and emotions—what’s become known as “emodiversity“—and not a state of perpetual joviality, is what leads to the experience of a generally good and happy life. Our state of body and mind both improve when we feel not just joy, gratitude and love, but also sadness, anger and fear, among many others. Human flourishing, over the long haul, has to allow for unhappiness, as well as happiness.
And, that leads to one last thing.
When it comes to happiness, we are not entirely in control.
We each have a unique “happiness set-point.” Some 50% of our happiness is determined by our genes. Another 40% comes from behavior and choice, the final 10% from environment. The good news is, we do have a significant say in how happy we can be or become. But, so does our biology. If our genetic set-point is more toward the melancholy or just “chill” side of the spectrum, but we hold ourselves to the standard of “rabidly happy, all the time,” we end up warring with our biology and setting ourselves up for failure, then frustration, then blame, then guilt, then misery.
If we accept the reality of the set-point, though, then do what we can to influence the 50% that’s within our control, then know some moments will cycle up, others will cycle down and “that’s okay,” we let ourselves off the expectation hook. We acknowledge that we have partial control over our happiness and accept our responsibility to, in Brad Feld’s words, do what we can to optimize what we can impact. Both in the context of our internal systems and choices, and our external circumstances.
And we also create the space for happiness cycling, honor the role of biology and genetics in the process and forgive ourselves when we don’t hit what may be, for us, an unattainable, Pollyanistic illusion, the futile pursuit of which does more harm than good.
Think of it this way…
Happiness is a snapshot, living a good life is a movie.
The former is a moment in time, the latter is the collective experience of every snapshot ever taken. Sure, you want plenty of happy pictures. But, you also want a life of contrast and texture. You want the full spectrum of emotion. You want a life of interest, meaning, purposeful contribution, engaging relationships.
Some of those will bring momentary happiness, others won’t. Some will cycle between. Your job is to be aware and intentional along the way. To choose the experiences and create the pictures with as much agency and possibility as possible. Over the long haul, the net effect or side-effect will produce the scenes of a movie that tell the story of a life well-lived.
As Viktor Frankl offered in Man’s Search for Meaning, happiness is not “pursued,” instead, it must “ensue.” If you want to live a good, happy life, don’t chase happiness to the exclusion of other emotions and states. Live fiercely, across the full spectrum of experiences. Connect. Contribute. Move. Open. Risk. Feel. Do. Happiness will emerge as the byproduct of your fully-engaged life, in it’s own way, in it’s own time, of it’s own accord.
SPARKED: Discover Your Unique Imprint for Work that Makes You Come Alive – my latest book, all about finding the hidden drivers of work that fills your with meaning, energy, and excitement, drops you into flow, and, fully expressed, lifts you into purpose.
Must listen – Andra Day’s Rise Up – I have this song on mega-rotation these days, so moving to me.
The Tutu Project – A moving example of how a simple idea can make a big difference.