The right to the pursuit of happiness is a cornerstone of the Declaration of Independence, giving Americans the freedom to make it their life goal to ensure their own wellbeing and happiness. They have the liberty to find their own way to the life they want, but do they use it? There are restraints on our pursuit of happiness other than limitations from the outside. Our ideas about what the good life is and how to get it are heavily influenced by signals from society and our social surroundings. And it seems these signals may sometimes send us in the wrong direction.
The American dream of “work hard, earn money, and you will be happy“ is a powerful motivator for many. It has driven economic, technological and social progress, but it may also create a paradigm that decreases our happiness rather than help steer us towards it.
Several studies have shown that there is a strong connection between materialism and psychological wellbeing. The more you prioritize materialistic goals, the less likely you are to experience wellbeing (Kasser et al. (2014). Changes in materialism, changes in psychological well-being: Evidence from three longitudinal studies and an intervention experiment. Motivation and Emotion, 38(1), 1-22.)
It seems that reaching such goals may even be detrimental for happiness. A longitudinal study by Niemiec, Ryan, and Deci followed a large group of graduates for a year, tracking how their aspirations, and attainment of these aspirations, were linked to psychological wellbeing. They distinguished between extrinsic goals (money, fame, or an appealing image) and intrinsic goals (close relationships, community involvement, personal growth and physical health). One year after graduation, they found that the degree to which individuals attained their intrinsic goals was correlated with higher psychological wellbeing. Reaching such goals seemed to result in more self-esteem, more satisfaction with life, and more positive feelings. On the other hand, the attainment of extrinsic goals was not correlated with higher psychological wellbeing. In fact, it seemed to be correlated to negative psychological health (Niemiec et al. (2009). The Path Taken: Consequences of Attaining Intrinsic and Extrinsic Aspirations in Post-College Life. J Res Pers.; 73(3): 291–306.).
In my clinical work, I often have clients who don’t understand why they are not happy. “I have everything I wanted. I have a good career, a great family, a good house. I should be really content. But I am often miserable and bitter. Why?”
The answer is complex, of course, but one part is that the goals they have lived by were given to them by outside sources, not internal needs and values. They grew up in an environment and a culture which told them that wanting status and a great career is mandatory. That wanting wealth is human nature. That, in fact, not wanting status and wealth would be seen as weakness, a flaw. So they never even thought to explore what would make them happy and satisfied with life. And when their pursuit of success and wealth was stressful and harmed their social and physical health, they saw it as a necessary sacrifice.
Enduring the pain was now a sign of strength, because achieving the goal would make it all worthwhile. As long as they were still on the way to the goal, this belief remained. But once they started to reach some of these goals, and they did not reach the promised land of contentment and happiness, it became increasingly difficult to keep going. Bitterness, sadness and doubt set in. When goals are reached, we no longer have them to give our life direction. And if those goals didn’t provide us with the expected outcome, we feel lost.
It seems that in order to actually come closer to happiness, we need to break free from the paradigms that don’t serve us. But the thing about paradigms is that we are often not even aware that there are other ways of seeing things. And when we have already invested a lot of our time and energy in a belief, it is difficult to let go of it. We keep investing in the same goal, because it has to pay off, or else all the sacrifices would be in vain.
A way to start redirecting your efforts into what actually will make you happy could be to look for goals that give immediate wellbeing from their actual pursuit. Be sceptical of proxy goals that promise reward on the other side of suffering; we may think that success is an indicator for happiness so we focus everything on becoming successful and forget to check whether we actually become happier. Demand reliable and frequent dividends from your investment, so to speak.
If travelling the path to the goal only rarely makes you happy, you’re probably going in the wrong direction. This goes against the paradigm of “no pain, no gain”, and therefore may feel wrong or indulgent. But you should at least ask for a good ratio of pain vs gain. If you spend five days of stress for every two days of calm and ease, your life is going to have a negative balance. Why not be ambitious about your happiness, rather than your status or income?
Happiness is very subjective, and pursuing it is difficult enough without the influence of advertising, social media and cultural norms. You can end up blaming yourself for not being happy. Instead of buying into such goals, gather your own data. Find out what actually makes you smile more, makes you feel better about yourself, your life and the world. If you want inspiration from research, results show that some of the things that increases wellbeing and happiness are things that connect you to your body, to other people, and to a higher purpose. But check with yourself, because you are the investor. Your returns need to justify your investment.