We are constantly reminded of the benefits of being happy: Happy people are more successful, have better sex, have more friends, have better bodies—the list goes on. While evidence supports the overall benefits of happiness, research shows that the more we think about happiness and how to pursue it, the less likely we are to find it.
For one, being told how important it is to be happy can lead to feelings of disappointment. Constant analysis of how happy you are undermines the ability to actually experience it. Ordinary moments that don’t deliver extraordinary joy feel like a failure. Another downside of relentlessly pursuing happiness is that it makes people lonely. An emphasis on the individual and on personal gain damages our connections with others. As author Parker Palmer once pointed out, “No one ever died saying, ‘I’m sure glad for the self-centered, self-serving, and self-protective life I’ve lived.’”
It’s when we contribute to the world and are of service to others that we discover something far more important than moment-to-moment happiness: a sense of meaning and purpose. Today, social pressure to feel happy (and broadcast it on social media) is intense. I have met patients concerned something is wrong with them because they are not happy most or all of the time. What I tell them is to focus less on the pursuit of happiness and more on the pursuit of goodness. Everything else will fall into place. Eleanor Roosevelt said it best: “Happiness is not a goal, it is a by-product.”