Last year, a bunch of my friends were sharing a long comic by Matthew Inman of the Oatmeal called “How to Be Perfectly Unhappy.” It argued that happiness should not be a goal. My friends really loved it! And it didn’t speak to me at all. I thought that was interesting, and the point of this post isn’t to tell anyone how to be.
Inman makes a great point about happiness not being a permanent state. He also makes the argument that you shouldn’t focus on being happy, but on doing meaningful things.
To me, this sets up a false dichotomy. I do things that are meaningful to me, and I’m really happy. Often, as he points out, those things can be a struggle, but it rarely ruins my day.
The Arguments Against the Pursuit of Happiness
Besides the Oatmeal cartoon, I’ve seen several articles in the past few years arguing against happiness as a goal in life. Here are some of the assertions I’ve seen:
It means you’re self-centered and shallow.
Most people have probably noticed that doing things for other people makes them happy. Studies show that happy people also tend to do more for others, so it’s a virtuous cycle.
It leads to addictions to painkillers, alcohol, and pornography.
I think aimlessness and depression are more likely to lead to these things, but I’ve never even met a pornography addict (that I know of), so I could be wrong.
For people with clinical depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder, the pursuit of happiness is useless.
This one is so tricky. Some people act as though anyone can cure themselves of mental illness through exercise and positive thinking. And some people seem to believe depression is always a life sentence and only medication has a chance of fixing it.
As far as I can tell, some people can get free of depression, even when it’s quite serious and has lasted for decades (this was my personal experience) and some can’t, and it probably depends on the person and the illness.
The pursuit of happiness is pointless, because life is terrible.
Life does bring grief, horror, and heartbreak, which is exactly why I try to make the most of the good things.
I Work at Being Happy Every Day… And It’s Working
A friend told me once, “You work hard at being happy.” I don’t have the idea that happiness should be effortless. Nothing worthwhile is! I’ve blogged before about mood tracking and my morning ritual as things that have made me happier.
More and more, I also start every day with a clear idea of just the kind of person I want to be — fun, spontaneous, generous, creative. Having that clear image of my ideal self really helps.
I try not to let the preoccupations and problems of any given day keep me from losing my happiness. Every single day brings new opportunities to connect with people, to try something new, and to enjoy the moment. One of my morning affirmations is,
I’ve sometimes had the feeling that if I concentrate on happiness, my responsibilities or my other goals will fall apart. So far, the opposite has happened. I function better and I’m more productive when I take care of myself and enjoy life.
I’ve gotten over the idea that I’ll wait until I reach a certain goalpost to be happy. It’s so easy for us to think, “I’ll be happy once this semester is over… once we’re married… once the kids are in school… once the kids are out of the house.. once I get a better job… once I get a novel published… once I’m making real money as an author… once I lose weight… once I retire.”
You can spend your whole life doing this. That’s why I’ve blogged before about how your good old days are right freaking now. I’m a very lucky person, and my life still has a few real challenges and plenty of uncertainty. Most of us are living with at least one mess or another. It doesn’t mean we can’t have a good time.
Maybe Different People Just Respond Differently To Goals.
Anyone who’s read this blog for a while or who knows me in real life knows that I love goals. I rarely meet anyone who loves them as much as I do!
A while back I dared people to make a list of 101 life goals like I did, but I’ve since learned that this isn’t for everybody. Some people will say things like, “Ugh, things like that just stress me out.”
Even when I’m not achieving a goal yet, it’s easy for me to believe that I’ll get there eventually. It makes sense that for a goal-oriented person like me, setting happiness as a goal would work, when it wouldn’t for other people.
What do you think? Is happiness a conscious goal of your life? If not, do you think it should be, or do you think that wouldn’t work for you? Let me know in the comments… and I hope you’re feeling happy today!