It’s The ‘Pursuit’ Of Happiness, Not Happiness Itself

In 1988, singer Bobby McFerrin released a simple, upbeat song called “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Actually, it was released twice: first as part of the soundtrack to the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail, when it peaked at #88 on the charts. When it was re-released later that year, it went all the way to #1 and won a Grammy for Song of the Year.

Yet the song’s unexpected success also sparked a backlash, and it became an easy target for those who felt it epitomized a shallow, escapist point of view. Looking at life through rose-tinted glasses doesn’t necessarily make life better, the critics said. McFerrin’s hit later achieved the dubious distinction of making Rolling Stone’s “10 Worst Songs of the 80’s” list.

Maintaining a positive outlook on life is an American tradition going all the way back to Ben Franklin, who advised: “Do not anticipate trouble, or worry about what may never happen. Keep in the sunlight.” His words were echoed in the 1950’s by Norman Vincent Peale in The Power of Positive Thinking. “The way to happiness,” he wrote, was to “keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry.”

Don’t worry, be happy, right?

I’ve always been skeptical of setting happiness as a goal. If it’s never fully attainable, aren’t we setting ourselves up for disappointment and frustration? I certainly have moments of happiness. But they can be fleeting, and the feeling of happiness is often dependent on things outside of our control. My instinct has always been to focus on what I can control: being capable, and focused, and purposeful. That’s where I look for fulfillment, a word I generally prefer to happiness.

But happiness has recently become the subject of serious study, by economists of all people. And not by light-weight “pop” economists either — but by heavy hitters like Paul Dolan at the London School of Economics. His book Happiness by Design has a foreword by one of my favorite economists, Daniel Kahneman (actually, he’s a psychologist, but he ended up winning the Nobel Prize for Economics), which caught my attention. Kahneman could never be accused of looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses. In fact, he’s a champion of a kind of negative thinking: focusing on all the ways our minds play tricks on us. He’s the founder of what’s become known as “behavioral economics.” So not surprisingly, Dolan’s book is focused on behavior, and not attitude, or state-of-mind. Change what you do, not what you think, he says.

Some economists in the field of “happiness economics” (yes, there really is such a thing) have turned their attention toward national measures of happiness. A number of nations (and U.S. cities as well) have tried to develop a Gross National Happiness or Well-Being statistic. And in 2011 the United Nations issued its first “World Happiness Report.”

Despite our reputation as positive thinkers, the U.S. doesn’t fare too well in these studies. One has us ranked 23rd, another as low as 150th. (On the other hand, we do account for two-thirds of the global market for antidepressants.)

Why the disconnect between our penchant for positive thinking, and our meager measures of happiness?

I think it’s because we look at happiness as almost a birthright, something easily within reach. We forget that Thomas Jefferson wrote about an “inalienable right” to the pursuit of happiness — not to happiness itself. I myself like to focus on the pursuit part of that phrase: to find satisfaction in process, and in the journey, rather than the destination.

In the sixties it became popular to say, “There is no way to peace; peace is the way.” Maybe that goes for happiness, too. The joy is in the journey.

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