I spent the core of my twenties chasing happiness.
At 22, while working at a Fortune 500 company, I thought: when I move to a new country to do my Master’s degree, I’ll be happy.
At 25, I finished up that graduate degree and thought: when I get a job and start making money, I’ll be happy.
While traveling, I taught: when I start my own business, I’ll be happy. So, at 29, I launched a company because I taught, maybe this will make me happy.
Today, at 30, I’ve realized that all through the years, I’ve set goals and relentlessly pursued them thinking that their achievement would set me on that path of perpetual happiness, but they never did… until I came to learn that everything we think we know about happiness is wrong.
The Lie We’ve Been Sold
We’ve been programmed to believe that happiness is achieved when we arrive at a future destination. This is the message we’ve been receiving over the years.
Coca-Cola’s global marketing campaign of “Open Happiness” associates consumerism with happiness. It reinforces the idea that happiness is something you feel when you buy or consume a can of coke. Likewise, one of the most famous lines from AMC’s TV Series, Mad Men, is Creative Director Don Draper’s: “What is happiness? Happiness is the smell of a new car.”
And in a way, it’s true. We do feel a spike in happiness when we buy a new phone or get the promotion we’ve been working so hard for. But after a while, this boost dies back down — the effects wear out and we go back to our neutral state of happiness.
In psychology, this is referred to as hedonic adaptation. It’s the theory that people repeatedly return to their “baseline” level of happiness after the occurrence of positive (or negative) life events.
With that said, modern society’s obsession with “the search” for happiness has transformed our thinking of happiness into a conditional “if-then” proposition.
If I get that promotion, I’ll be happy. If I lose 50 pounds and fit in that dress, I’ll be happy. If my business breaks 6-figure sales, I’ll be happy. If I find a new girlfriend, I’ll be happy. If I buy a new house, I’ll be happy.
But there are two major flaws with this approach to happiness:
- It plants the subconscious thought that happiness is something ahead of us and the only way to attain it is to chase it.
- It directly associates happiness with the outcome of a result. If you achieve a result, you’ll be happy. If you don’t, you’ll be miserable.
And so, over the years, we’ve become obsessed with seeking what we believe is perpetual happiness — but in reality, it’s conditional happiness. We go through life with this mentality: “if I achieve my goal, I will be happy.”
Break The Cycle and Raise The Baseline
If you want to be happy, you need to stop chasing happiness.
You need to realize that happiness is not something you seek — it’s something you become. It’s similar to gratitude and fulfillment.
You do not seek gratitude, you become a grateful person by practicing gratitude every day. You do not seek fulfillment, you become a fulfilled person by doing work that makes you feel fulfilled every day.
Similarly, you do not seek happiness, you become a happy person. How? You raise your “baseline” level of happiness as a whole and separate it from life’s events. You begin to see yourself as a happy person who despite the set-backs, and the failures and the pain you experience in life — you still choose to be happy.
Happiness is not something you seek — it’s something you become.
There is no “condition” to live by. There is no destination to “arrive to”. There is no “end goal” to reach. There is only “the now” and the choice to be happy.
Today, I look at happiness through a much different lens. I see it as the Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh sees it:
“There is no way to happiness; happiness is the way.”
Happiness is in how I grow and expand in the process of working towards my goals. Happiness is in the joy and struggle of working on my craft — writing. Happiness is not in material consumption, but in living with intentions and doing things that are challenging, meaningful and worthwhile. Happiness is in the friendships that I have and the relationships that I grow.
Happiness is in the openness to the journey of everything that lies ahead — despite its inevitable pain, vulnerability, grief, confusion, and discomfort because these are emotions we cannot escape.
We spend a lot of time trying to figure out the next thing that will make us happy, but not nearly enough time trying to enjoy the happiness that we already have. If you want to be happy, you need to stop chasing happiness.
This kind of thinking has changed the way I see the world around me. It helped me break the cycle of “when I achieve X, I will be happy.”
I feel calmer, present, and more confident. I’m no longer rushing to get somewhere or searching for the next big thing. Instead, I’m just enjoying the growth that’s happening through the process of “figuring things out” in the day-to-day.
I’m still an ambitious person and I do have lots of goals I want to achieve. But I know that whether I do accomplish them or not, I won’t let the outcome define me, because I’ve learned that happiness is not defined by the outcome of the results — goals are. And happiness and goals are two different things.
Happiness is defined by the way we live our lives, because “happiness is the way” and I know, deep within, I’m already there. This is how — and why — I stopped chasing happiness. I hope you do too.
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