We are taught from a young age that achieving specific milestones of success — getting good grades, getting into a great college, having a prestigious career, having a certain amount of money saved, living in the right house or neighborhood, marrying the right person, having talented or well-behaved kids, etc. — will make us happy. The truth is that none of these things have anything to do with happiness.
Happiness versus Happy Moments
What happens when you reach a big goal of yours? Do you feel really happy? Elated, even? For how long? I mean, how long do you maintain that elevated feeling of euphoria after you reach a big goal? For most of us, the answer is “not long.” Perhaps a day, a week, or even a month or more. What happens, exactly, when that feeling fades? It is not that you are less pleased to have reached the goal. It is not even that the goal loses some of its meaning. It’s merely that part of the joy is in achieving something, and once the moment of achievement passes, we are looking for the next goal, the next achievement.
In other words, we seldom spend time basking in the satisfaction of what we have achieved. We set another goal, and then the next and the next. Sometimes it may feel that you will just be happy “when…” And then when that condition is met, well, you’re not really all that happy, at least not for long. You start looking for the next goal to pursue. This is a false definition of happiness that depends on a never-ending string of achievements. We can even pursue achievements that have little long-term meaning, like many material pursuits, and have that momentary sense of achievement, without lasting happiness.
So, what is happiness anyway? It’s not really that sense of euphoria, it’s not pleasure, but something larger, deeper, more fundamental. In other words, happiness is less an event and more an ongoing state of mind and a way of focusing on the larger picture, the journey, the quality of experiences. It is often about defining your values and purpose, and staying true to them. To increase your level of happiness, you don’t need more “happy moments”, you need a more positive outlook on all moments, a sense that they are part of the tapestry of a life well-lived, that they are consistent with who you are.
The secret to happiness is actually not at all related to setting goals and achieving them. Happiness is a state of mind that allows you to be content and appreciate each moment for what it brings, and to increase it by honoring your personal core values and purpose. The good news is that you can create happiness in almost any circumstance. We know stories of people in moments of great hardship and even torture who found happiness and joy, and others who seem to have great material, career or family success, and yet happiness eludes them.
Happiness versus Success
The greater truth is that success does not create happiness, but happiness can create success. Think about people who seem to attract success. Not the ruthless competitors — people you just naturally want to be around. People who seem to bring others up, who find an opportunity in any circumstance, and those who are content or even passionate about pursuing a personal goal.
Given the choice between pursuing achievements to become happy and finding inner happiness and letting success come to you, which do you think is more successful? There are, of course many ways to have both achievements and happiness. The mistake is in assuming that success or achievement alone will bring you happiness. When achievements are connected to your core values, when you have defined for your deeper purpose and life vision, when you embrace each moment, then happiness is built into your achievements.
Achievements alone for their own sake seldom lead to happiness and often feel like an addiction for over-achievers who keep looking for that next goal in the hopes that it will be soul-satisfying and lead to deep happiness.
The Path to Happiness
If achievement alone does not create happiness, how can leaders align their achievements and lives to generate greater happiness, satisfaction and joy? There are few simple keys to finding happiness:
- Make a conscious decision to pursue happiness. Take the time to reflect on decisions and actions you are making and put them in the context of your values and purpose.
- Get a clear handle on your personal values. What do you value above all else? For many people, things like family, faith, and work come near the top. You will also want to get more specific about values like your legacy versus prestige, or relationships versus financial rewards. These are not mutually exclusive. The exercise is to get them in the right priority for you. If one had to give, which would it be?
- Create a vision for your life. What is your life all about? When you die, how do you want to be remembered? What do you want to be absolutely sure you spend more time doing?
- Commit to finding an opportunity in every moment to move closer to your vision. This helps you recover from events that feel negative, and find ways to use the painful life experiences we all have to move forward, learn something and make better choices from your own values.
- Finally, cultivate a little purposeful optimism. Optimists see that glass half full, see bad events as one-time occurrences and good events as things they had a hand in. This kind of thinking goes a long way toward moving you forward when your results are not what you hoped for.
The field of positive psychology contains many rich examples of studies large and small on how these behaviors impact happiness, and how happiness impacts ultimate success (financial, relationship, career, health). You owe it to yourself to take advantage of the findings and leverage them for yourself.
If it seems hard, you can always get some help from my ebook, Fearless: Ten Steps to Your Destiny, which walks you through ten steps to writing down your vision, values and setting yourself up to build success through happiness.