Meditation for Modern Life

Mindfulness skills from a well being expert

Why Pursuing Happiness Is the Greatest Goal

We all deserve to be happy.

I’m sure when you’ve visited your local grocery store, you’ve seen all the tabloids at the checkouts, describing the different lives of people all over the world and how some of them haven’t turned out very well. These newspapers and magazines usually pick on famous people who have done some misdeed or have had something go wrong in their life, and the tabloid is trying to exploit it to sell papers. I don’t think I’ve ever purchased one of those magazines because I think everyone matters, even famous people, and in their lives I’d love for them to be happy too; we all deserve to be happy. However, I do think these newspapers and magazines have something to teach us.

What almost everyone, and I do mean almost everyone, thinks in their pursuit of happiness is “When I reach this goal or obtain this, then I’ll be happy.” Often, this goal is in pursuit of a relationship, a new job, a certain amount of money, or great notoriety that we want; then we’ll be happy. Yet the lesson of the tabloids is that the famous people who have many of the things we say we want aren’t happy themselves. But why? What’s going on here?

It’s actually very simple, but it takes a little bit of reasoning. It’s all about what people are pursuing, and when they get it. For example, if someone tells you about one of their friends who has done well in business and now is very wealthy, you’re likely to ask, “But is he happy?” Perhaps someone else you know is a well-known, respected surgeon in the community, but you might ask, “But is he happy?” I have a friend who has five kids—kids he and his wife have wanted their whole lives. Again, you might ask, “But are they happy?” Or perhaps you are told of someone who fell in love and married a high school sweetheart. You’re going to ask, “But is he or she happy?”

Actually, you may not ask this question at all, but it is a relevant question. Are they happy? So, as reasoning people, this exercise reinforces for us that, in and of themselves, these different “things” don’t bring us happiness. Fame, money, success, love; people may have these things, as the tabloids show, but it doesn’t mean that they’re happy. 

Interestingly, the reverse is also true. When we know someone is happy, it never occurs to us to ask “Are they wealthy?” “Are they at the top of their field?" “Are they famous?” “Do they live in a beautiful home?” “Is their spouse gorgeous?” “Did their kids get into an Ivy League school?” A person could be poor, uneducated, living alone, and not be very attractive, but still be happy. We all know people that are like that. And we envy them.

In my book, Living A Peaceful Life, I talk about a woman I know named Betty, who was physically in pain, very poor, very unattractive, her only child lived in a foreign country, and yet she was clearly one of the happiest people you could ever meet. She even described herself as a very happy person. So this article is really about “logic.” I didn’t start with that word because I didn’t want people to see it and stop reading. Sometimes, when people hear “logic” or “philosophy,” they’re out the door!  But logic is just wise thinking. Logically, we don’t need anything to be happy. Nothing has to happen to make us happy. There are people out there who don’t have anything, who are extremely happy.

Happiness stands alone. However, anything else doesn’t.

The tabloids keep teaching us that these people who are wealthy sometimes aren’t happy. These people that are famous sometimes aren’t happy. A doctor friend of mine told me his son got into Harvard and that Harvard students really have a problem with depression. I think what happens there is that good students finally reaches the top of the academic world and then finds out that being there doesn’t bring them the happiness they expected; so they struggles with depression, serious depression.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not at all suggesting we should stop pursuing our goals. We just need to understand that when we reach our goals, it may not, in and of itself, make us happy. When I work with young professionals, they sometimes tell me, “Well, when I get there, I’ll feel differently. I’ll be happy.”  But it’s always the same; it doesn’t work, it never works. Just reaching our goals isn’t what is going to bring us happiness.

So what IS going to bring us happiness then? What can we do instead? It’s actually very simple. It’s just a matter of applying logic. There’s that imposing word again. If happiness is what we pursue and only what we pursue, then what will happen is that we’ll end up being happy, if we also have good direction. Other things won’t get us there, won’t get us to our happiness. So we have to be careful about how much time and energy we give to these other pursuits. Let me give you a clear example of how this works.

In my work, I meet a lot of professional people; medical doctors, psychologists, professors, researchers, lawyers, and a lot of different professional people. What I’ve found along the way is that they spend a lot of time working on their goals of being a professional and reaching the top of their field. But, they don’t spend much time enjoying themselves and being happy right now. In my own case, I love sunsets. I live in southern California and we have really beautiful sunsets. So I love to watch these beautiful sunsets. Now, you’re not likely to ask me if I’m happy because I’m watching a sunset. You’re just going to see that I’m watching a sunset and that’s making me happy. But when I talk to my professional colleagues, it’s amazing how hard it is to get them to stop and watch sunsets. I often encourage them. You know what the problem is? They know sunsets are awesome, go do it, go watch them; but, they’re too busy pursuing their goals so that someday they can watch sunsets. Really, that’s basically what they do. They think “Someday I’ll be happy.”  I think, “Why not be happy now?” 

Life is replete with things we can do that will encourage us to be happy. Spending time in nature is one of those activities: smelling a rose, watching an animal in the wild. These are things that are so astounding that it’s hard for us not to be happy while we’re enjoying and participating in them.

What we need to decide is this: “I’m going to spend time just working on being happy.” You can use the words I give you to pursue your happiness. My hope is that all of my writings about the pursuit of happiness will help you learn how to be happy right now. That has to be the goal for all of us; not money, not success, not to have the right love, the right looks. The goal has to be pure happiness. When that’s our goal—because happiness stands alone and it doesn’t need anything else—then guess what will happen? We’ll end up being happy, right here, right now.

It’s got to be our goal, and we have to keep pursuing it. So keep coming back and reading my blog about happiness and don’t give up. Happiness is something that any of us can have, right here, right now.

Robert Puff, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist who has been in private practice for over 20 years.

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