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Key to Happiness: Focus on What You Need, Not What You Want

A balanced life with needs met optimizes happiness.

Who wants to be happy? Well, who doesn't? After a session this morning, it struck me that when we focus on chasing our wants, our level of happiness actually drops. The more we focus on what we don't have, the more deprived we feel. After all, inherent in the meaning of "wanting" is not having, and you cannot feel fulfilled while you focus on what you lack. That is a basic principle of spiritual study, especially Buddhism. So, here's the antidote: If you want to be happy, be grateful for what you have. Focus on that.

Studies of happiness and wealth repeatedly show that beyond a certain level of income or material prosperity, happiness levels do not continue to increase with increased levels of wealth. That is to say, once you have what you actually need (and maybe plus a little extra for security/retirement), you are set in terms of how your happiness level will be impacted. Other factors then become more central to your sense of happiness or fulfillment.

Too often, in a materialistic society, people can become myopically preoccupied or even obsessed with achieving greater levels of wealth and/or amassing the trappings that wealth can provide. While it can feel good to earn a high salary, and while there is nothing morally wrong with doing so, to expect that a higher amount in your bank account will keep you fully satisfied emotionally is short-sighted.

The key to happiness is this: The fulfillment of our needs, not our wants, is what makes us happy. Thus we would do better to focus on how much is enough to fulfill our various needs, and strive for balance in our lives. Distributing efforts across domains is wiser than being plugged into one area too much of the time. Beyond meeting our level of need, the extra effort in that direction tends to become excessive, distracting, and even stressful. For example, pursuing extra wealth when we are lacking in family connection reflects an imbalance, and is less emotionally rewarding than having less wealth but better relationships.

People are multi-faceted beings who have needs in various spheres or domains. There are general areas that those who study happiness tend to mention when talking about life balance and personal satisfaction. These areas are mental, emotional, physical, interpersonal, and spiritual. What any one person experiences as being enough in any one area, and how that might look or what form that may take in any one person's life, is what makes us individual. Different strokes, and all. But basically, when self-examining, we would do best to gain clarity on what do we really need in each area, and separate that from what we think we want. Then work toward fulfillment of those needs, while keeping our wanting in check.

A natural tendency with something that is rewarding is to want more and more. More is better, right? Well, not necessarily. There can be (and usually is) a cost to pursuing more over here while neglecting things over there. So be mindful of your natural human tendency to want more of a good thing - that impetus can confuse us and lead us off course. Such impulses are useful when resources are scarce and we need to strive to survive. But there thankfully is a limit when it comes to meeting personal needs, and that is what we need to keep in mind when pursuing happiness in the modern world.

More from Allison Kahner Psy.D.
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