Can We All Just Stop Trying to Be Happy?

Over the last few years, there have been a number of books published about happiness and how to be happy. You can easily find classes, workshops or coaches that will all support you in your pursuit of happiness. The thing about focusing on happiness as a goal is that it’s fleeting.

Think about the fact that in any given day we might start out happy but then go quickly to irritation and unhappiness or start off unhappy and then end the day on a happy, high note. Happiness, for most of us, is an emotion that comes and goes. Striving for happiness can lead to frustration since it’s entirely possible to get the things we thought would make us happy and still not feel happy.

Professor Iris Mauss has studied the pursuit of happiness and found that the more people pursue happiness, the less they seem able to obtain or experience it. Her studies show that when people set high standards for happiness the more disappointed they tend to be when that standard is not met.

Human beings have been trying to figure out how to be happy for thousands of years — thousands of years. We began struggling with ideas about what makes a good life, what makes us happy, as soon as we were able to as a species. In approximately 350 BC Aristotle (and other philosophers of the time) grappled with many of the same questions around happiness that we do today. He suggested, in his thoughts on Eudamics, that living well or living with virtue may bring us more long-term satisfaction and contentment then making happiness (or pleasure) the goal.

In their 2008 article, Living well: A self-determination theory perspective on Eudaimonia, authors Ryan, Huta and Deci, elaborate on Aristotle’s perspective:

“For Aristotle eudaimonic living requires engaging one’s best human capacities by actively pursuing virtues and excellences. In this view, as people pursue excellence they are actualizing their most authentic or highest natures… Aristotle’s model of eudimonia included a list of specific virtues and excellences that constitute a good life, each of which he defends with extensive arguments. The list includes attributes such as courage, generosity, wisdom and being fair and just in relation to others.”

I’m with Aristotle on this one. Instead of constantly striving for the feeling of happiness as a goal, why not pursue excellences and virtues? Now, what exactly we each define as virtue and excellence is up for debate. But for me, it means simply living life by being present in the moment, valuing healthy connections with others, trying our best in everything we do, and living our values through our daily actions.

Rather than looking at happiness as the target, how about consciously savoring the magic and mundane that coexists in each moment — like the way the sunlight dapples through a window on a fall day. Or those times we let ourselves flow with our lives and ideas come together serendipitously. Personally I experience a great deal of well-being from contributing in a positive or meaningful way to whatever work is in front of me. So to paraphrase Ryan, Huta and Deci, eudemonia focuses on the content of one’s life and the process involved in living well as opposed to what we think of as a happy state of mind.

Etymologically, Eudamics consists of the words “eu” (“good”) and “daimōn” (“spirit”). Instead of trying endlessly to be happy, why not make our goal living with good spirit. Why not take the time to define our values and then put them into action. At the end of the day, we can judge our level of contentment and satisfaction by how well we practiced and supported ourselves in living our values and beliefs with excellence. Not whether or not we felt happy in any given moment.