Erica Reischer Ph.D.

What Great Parents Do

The Secret to a Fulfilling Life Is Not What You Might Think

Focusing on happiness may backfire

Posted Jun 22, 2015

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ask a roomful of people what they really want in life and you will probably hear this: “I just want to be happy.” 

Unfortunately, decades of research present a paradox: focusing on happiness is not a great way to actually be happy. True happiness is a consequence, not a goal. 

As Dr. Benjamin Spock said:  "The trouble with happiness is that it can't be sought directly. It is only a precious by-product of other worthwhile activities."

But too often, we equate happiness with pleasure and gratification. We try to do activities we like, spend money on things we want, and so on. Over time, these choices reinforce the idea that happiness is found in feeling good and getting what we want.

But feeling good (aka Pleasure) is only one dimension or “flavor” of happiness.  Happiness as Pleasure includes delicious food, fun experiences, and beautiful things. 

Pleasure can bring momentary feelings of happiness, but it has notable downsides.  Pleasure is fleeting, and pleasurable activities also create habituation, so we need more of that pleasure (or a new pleasure) in order to keep feeling it. As we have all experienced with a favorite food, it’s typically the anticipation and first bite that are most pleasurable. 

Perhaps the biggest downside of pursuing Pleasure is that it does not contribute to overall life satisfaction.

However, research shows that there are two other critical dimensions of happiness that do: Engagement and Meaning. These two experiences are the “worthwhile activities” Dr. Spock was referring to. 

Engagement is the creative application of our skills to meet challenges. These activities often result in what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow,” a state of total absorption in what we are doing. 

Music and sports are common examples, but engagement can result from any activity that requires us to work at our full capacity, matching our skills to the challenge at hand. 

Importantly, those activities that are most likely to create Engagement are not always “fun” or pleasurable to do, at least at the outset.  Like learning to play an instrument or program a computer, these types of activities are often complex and require us to develop our skills through practice and persistence.     

Meaning, also defined as Service, is using our abilities to contribute to the greater good.  When we strive for Meaning, we are focused on pursuits that have a broader impact and purpose than our own personal goals and desires. 

Examples of Meaning are defined by their connection with others, such as teaching or volunteering. In contrast, activities that result in Pleasure and even Engagement are typically solitary affairs.

Although the pursuit of Meaning is an essential part of a life well-lived, few of us say:  “I just want to do good.” 

However, when we focus our efforts on doing good instead of being happy, our goals become aligned with the pursuit of Meaning, which is a driver of happiness for both self and others. 

By pursuing Engagement and Meaning, we are most likely to stumble on happiness, to use psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s apt phrasing.

In contrast, when we spend much of our time trying to fulfill our desires and preferences--instead of focusing on building skills, meeting challenges, and serving the greater good--we are short-circuiting the very process that is most likely to bring us lasting happiness.  For example, we spend far more time watching sports (Pleasure) than playing sports (Engagement) or teaching sports (Meaning). 

I’m not arguing for ignoring our desires and preferences, only that the more we balance them with what’s important, good, and meaningful, the happier we will actually be. 

There are many activities in life—from learning an instrument to befriending an unpopular person—that we may not “like” doing, but these challenging and worthwhile activities sow seeds of true happiness.    

So focus on doing good instead of being happy. It’s the best path to happiness.

© 2015, Erica Reischer Ph.D.  Twitter: @DrEricaR

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Dr. Reischer is a psychologist and author of "What Great Parents Do:  The small Book of BIG Parenting Ideas" (forthcoming, Tarcher/Penguin Random House).