To create a fulfilling, energized, and fatigue-free life, should you work towards increasing your happiness? Or, is the pursuit of happiness a misguided ambition?
It’s commonly assumed that more happiness equates to a better life.
Happy people don’t seem to suffer from fatigue, right?
When we hold happiness up to the lens of scientific scrutiny, it may not actually be the emotion you need to achieve in order to improve your health, increase energy, or overcome fatigue. The pursuit of happiness may be a misguided ambition.
Do you chase happiness?
In the United States alone, the self-help book industry brings in over $10 billion each year. (1) Often, these self-help books are aimed at strategies or tools to help bring about more joy and/or happiness in life. I bet you’ve got one on your bookshelf right now! I’ve got a number of them.
Unfortunately, the majority of these books are based on what is colloquially known as pop-psychology. Pop psychology will often take a small piece of scientific evidence and transform it into a hyped-up entity that vaguely resembles the original study. (2) It’s like that telephone game you played as a kid. The message at the beginning is often quite distorted by the time it makes its way to the last person in line.
As such, the results outlined in many books and magazines are not what you experience when you put these practices into action. One of the hallmark categories of the self-help movement is that of happiness. More specifically, how happiness to improve your health, increase your energy or, be used as a means to overcome fatigue.
I’m sure you’ve seen books on the Amazon best-seller list that purport to have a 10-step plan to happiness. Or, a prestigious author’s fool-proof plan to fill your day with more joy. I’ve read many of these books. While the author’s motivation is likely altruistic, their advice never seems to change the amount of joy or happiness I have in my life.
Don’t get me wrong, I certainly support the endeavor of attaining more joy and happiness in life. But perhaps the pursuit is misguided.
What if happiness is the wrong metric?
What if a healthy, energized life was not about having more happiness in your days?
Why happiness is the wrong emotion for health and energy
When you think of happiness, what comes to mind? For me, it’s smiles, laughter, parties, friends, and travel. Overall, happiness is tied to experiencing a positive mood. But positive moods are fleeting events.
Think of a time when you picked up a loved one from the airport. Odds are, you were very happy at that moment. After that moment expired, were you still happy? Or, were you frustrated at the airport parking fees and the crazy amounts of traffic on the drive home?
Happiness, much like other emotions, is very much a momentary feeling. It is strongly impacted by your environment. When you try to bring fleeting feelings into your life, you don’t make a long-term change in your mood. The happiness theory gets muddled up when you extrapolate positive mood or happiness to equal health. They’re two different entities.
Consider this, I am surveying you on your wedding day. On a 1-10 scale of life satisfaction (1 being completely unsatisfied with life, 10 being completely satisfied with life) how would you rate yourself? As weddings are often one of the happiest days/moments of our lives, an overwhelming majority of respondents would rate their life satisfaction a 10, or, very high.
What would happen if I did the same survey to you shortly after you’ve been laid-off from your dream job? My guess, it’s likely your life satisfaction would be quite low.
A study researching this paradox found that the mood you are in determines more than 70% of how much life satisfaction you report. (3) That means if you were surveyed on your wedding day, you’d likely report very high life satisfaction. Yet, if you got laid off from your dream job the day after your wedding, you’d report low levels of life satisfaction.
How can that be?
On Monday (your wedding day) you report a 10/10 in life satisfaction. On Tuesday (the day you’re let go from work) you report a 3/10. Of course, this is an extreme example, but it illustrates how greatly your mood influences your thoughts about well-being. And if something as volatile as your mood influences life satisfaction or happiness, then we’ve got this whole equation wrong.
Happiness and therefore life satisfaction is inextricably linked to how you feel in the moment. Such a transient variable is not what needs to be pursued in order to live a life worth living.
Said another way, trying to bring more happiness to your life will not improve your life satisfaction or make you happier.
Happiness may temporarily alleviate your fatigue. But after the emotion subsides, you’re likely to be left with the same low energy levels. Happiness is not the path towards overcoming fatigue.
Using mood as a metric for measuring happiness will classify all introverts (myself included) – who, on the whole, are generally less cheery than extroverts – as low energy and lower in life satisfaction. (4) Thankfully, science has found a new benchmark that can be used to improve your life, health, and energy.
The new happiness theory
If you’re feeling tired, fatigued, and generally low in the health department, have I made it clear why happiness is the wrong emotion to chase?
Well-being has 5 important elements:
- Positive Emotion
- Positive relationships
Positive emotion includes moods like happiness. Positive emotion is any emotion that is pleasant and/or uplifting. Happiness (or any positive emotion) remains a part of the well-being theory. But it makes up twenty percent of the overall measurement.
Engagement refers to those moments when you are so engaged in an activity that “time stands still” or you’re “completely absorbed by the task.” Other authors and researchers have called this the flow state. To increase your well-being you should be engaged in acitivities that push you towards being fully engaged!
Meaning is defined as belonging to and serving something that you feel is bigger than yourself. In order for something to be meaningful, it must satisfy three criteria:
- It must contribute to well-being
- It must be pursued for its own sake
- It is independent of positive emotion and engagement
Think back on one of your favorite moments in life. I would bet that the moment was shared with other people. Positive relationships with friends and family are integral to well-being and improving your health. One study found that not have close relationships was more dangerous than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day! (7)
Accomplishment is different than winning. It is about accomplishing simply for the sake of accomplishing. Some psychologists call this eudaimonic well-being. It’s the pursuit of a goal bigger than yourself simply for personal growth. Pursuing a masters degree is a perfect example of accomplishment.
Why well-being is better than happiness
Happiness simplifies life to be about feeling good. Nothing more. It is a hedonistic way to engage with life. That’s not to say it’s bad. It’s just been shown to be less fulfilling than pursuing eudaimonic well-being.
As anyone who has undertaken a challenging (but meaningful) project can attest to, there are many times that it feels terrible. Think about pursuing a post-secondary education. I’d argue that avoiding it would increase positive feelings. However, most would attribute it towards increasing their well-being. It creates meaning, accomplishment, positive relationships, engagement, and positive emotions. But the way in which it creates this is the challenge.
Another study looked at couples with children and those without. Couples with children report lower life satisfaction and happiness compared to couples without children. (8) No, evolution did not get it all wrong. Having children increases both meaning, positive relationships, and accomplishment. These are established criteria towards well-being. This is also why parents likely report higher levels of well-being than non-parents.
How to get more well-being in your life
At this point, I hope I’ve presented enough evidence for you to stop framing your goals towards getting more happiness in life. More happiness will not improve your health, your quality of life, nor your energy (at least in the long-term). Instead, your goals should be aligned with increasing well-being.
The goal of well-being is to increase the amount of flourishing in your life.To flourish, one must have the core features of well-being plus six additional features. The core features, as you now know, include: (8)
- Positive emotion
- Positive relationships
The additional features of flourishing include:
Put together, flourishing looks like this:
Positive emotion – taking all things together, how happy would you say you are?
Engagement/Interest – Are you actively engaged in (and love) learning new things?
Meaning/Purpose – Do you (overall) feel that what you do in your life is valuable and worthwhile?
Self-esteem – In general, do you feel very positive about yourself?
Resilience – When things go wrong in your life, does it generally take a short period of time to get back to normal?
Positive relationships – Are there people in your life who really care about you?
Flourishing equates to having positive answers to the above categories. Excelling in these six categories allow you to move beyond well-being. When you move beyond well-being, researchers refer to this state as optimal human experience or flourishing.
Flourishing, not happiness, is the state we all should be aiming to achieve in our lives.
To quote Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz:
What you measure affects what you do.
If you continue to try to bring about more happiness into your lives, you will remain on the hamster wheel. Never truly achieving a life worth living. Should you alter your yardstick, shifting your goals towards well-being or flourishing, you can then take steps towards creating and living your ideal life. This is how you overcome fatigue!
Now, I want to hear from you!
How do you cultivate well-being in your life?
What practice(s) have improved well-being in your life?
For more articles on flourishing and finding purpose in your life, please see my recommendations below. Enjoy.
Also published on Medium.