“Happiness is not a goal, it’s a by-product...” – Eleanor Roosevelt
I came across this quotation this morning and it struck me, particularly amidst the beginning of 2016 and the typical posts, comments and discussions about New Year’s resolutions. In our society, we are often pulled toward an idea that we must always be happy, content, or otherwise filled with positive emotion. If we only did better, had more and [fill in the blank], then we’d be happy. We also learn to try to get rid of and painstakingly avoid negative emotions and experiences, which are the “opposite” of our goal to be happy. The big problem here is that the more we seek happiness, the more we tend to suffer.
Happiness is commonly viewed as a positive emotional state, such as feelings of contentment, gladness and joy. If we spend our time seeking this version of happiness, we will often be disappointed. The reason for this is that emotional states change, they are fleeting and are not constant or continuous. The truth is that we will suffer in our lives, whether it is managing conflict with others, grieving the loss of a loved one, struggling with addiction or health problems, the list can go on and on.
Instead, if we can learn to view happiness as the engagement in a meaningful, satisfying life, we can experience the fulfillment and happiness of living a life worth living rather than seeking short-lived or fleeting emotions. It’s about shifting the focus to actions we value vs. just the emotions that follow. The catch here is that even a meaningful, satisfying life will include pain and loss. We must take the good with the bad, or risk falling into the cycle of seeking something that will never be ultimately sustainable or fulfilling.
Our values will change and shift over time, as will what qualifies as meaningful and satisfying in our lives. I encourage you to consider what happiness will mean for you in 2016. Which version of happiness will you seek, an idealized emotional state or the pursuit of a value-filled life?
*If this blog post sparks your interest, I strongly recommend reading “The Happiness Trap,” by Dr. Russ Harris. To read the first chapter for free on his website, click here.