“As with everything in life, happiness has its trade-offs. Pursuing happiness to the exclusion of other goals–known as psychological hedonism–is not only an exercise in futility. It may also give you a life that you find you don’t want, one in which you don’t reach your full potential, you’re reluctant to take risks, and you choose fleeting pleasures over challenging experiences that give life meaning.” –Arthur Brooks for The Atlantic
What is it? Externalizing purpose or happiness as a goal
Pursuing something implies that that thing isn’t currently accessible. It exists in the distance and we have to cover ground to get to it. We have to have something in order to be or do it. Purpose and happiness unfortunately tend to get lumped into this practice.
They’ve become a part of a common narrative that “Once I have XYZ I’ll feel happy,” or “Once I do ABC I’ll have purpose.”
There are two ways that pursuit of such intangible, high-order states become barriers to purpose. One is that, ironically,
1. Pursuing purpose makes purpose a destination instead of a journey, rendering it a state of being that lies eternally out of reach in the future.
And the other is
2. The pursuit of conventional happiness– which orients us towards experiences that are often less meaningful in the long term, and can result in meaningless sacrifices.
Purpose is less of a destination and more of an orientation towards a destination. An apt metaphor is considering purpose as a north star: it guides you in a particular direction, informing your choices, goals, and actions; but you understand that you are not quite aiming to reach the star. Conceptualizing your purpose as a guiding framework for your actions and goals imbues your journey with purposefulness– it makes purpose accessible right now.
When we believe purpose (or happiness) is something we must achieve, it can lead to us comparing our current experience to what we’d like to be feeling or doing ideally. Doing so casts the present experience as less than enough; it pales in comparison to our ideal. Because of this we can end up not feeling purposeful but more like we’re chasing something perpetually out of reach.
Pursuing Conventional ‘Happiness’
‘Happiness’ is a term we use as a bucket for all sorts of experiences: fleeting pleasure, deep satisfaction with our lives, a high frequency of positive experiences, being in moments of flow, and having a sense of meaning and purpose. It’s a catchall for general well-being.
Happiness We Chase
Happiness As Enough
There is an entire section of this website dedicated to breaking the concept of happiness down into four elements and making it easier to cultivate. The type that is most relevant to this hindrance is the first Element of Well-being: Ephemeral Pleasures. The first Element of Well-being focuses on experiences where the positive feelings eventually expire:
- eating a yummy meal
- getting a promotion
- buying a house
- going on vacation
- seeing an excellent performance.
They give us a temporary high that must be sought again and again in order to recreate the sensation of ‘happiness.’
When we talk about ‘pursuing happiness’ we are often talking about conventional happiness, or a generalized positive experience that is largely characterized by Element 1 of Well-Being: plenty of pleasure, leisure, ease, abundance, and play.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting pleasure in our lives. Pleasure is a wonderful part of life that has an essential role in our overall well-being. The challenge to purpose lies in focusing on and prioritizing pleasure-based goals at the expense of meaning and purpose.
When we aim primarily to be things like wealthy, famous, or powerful, we can de-prioritize aspects of our lives that we perceive as potentially interfering with those missions. Often purpose and meaning are the things that get sacrificed because they may not make us powerful, wealthy, or famous; They may even take time away from things that do, and likely require time, energy, and attention that aren’t always easy to give.
The following caricature examples illustrate how the pursuit of happiness over meaning could impact your life.
Rohan wants to be wealthy
Rohan knows what he enjoys and that’s nice things: clothing, dinners, events, technology, vacations, etc. He only pursues high paying jobs with plenty of benefits so he can enjoy the finer things in life.
Even though he goes after high paying jobs, he makes sure the work isn’t TOO challenging or anything that would require him to be really invested because he recognizes the stress is undesirable and limits his enjoyment.
Rohan is therefore able to devote all his energy to play and enjoyment. He feels like he has hacked the system.
If he were offered a job that revolved around something he really cared about he probably wouldn’t take it because there could be a pay cut and it would require him to invest more of his heart, time, and energy into it which could compromise his ability to invest in his pleasures.
Kelly wants to be in charge
Kelly really doesn’t like having to follow other people’s orders or systems. She feels much happier when she has a lot of freedom to make whatever choices she thinks are most important. She is also a hard worker and enjoys having a lot of responsibility. These components have led to Kelly pursuing leadership roles in all her jobs/projects. She craves being in charge so she can have control over how things go.
Kelly isn’t willing to do projects or work that she isn’t in charge of because she doesn’t enjoy it as much- in fact it’s really uncomfortable for her. This blocks her from potentially experiencing purpose by cutting off possibilities. If she needed to be a part of a team for a project she cared about, or start from the ground up while learning a new industry, she would be quite disinclined. She is more interested in her experience of what she is doing than the outcome of her work.
Kelly wants to prioritize pursuing power and comfort over the discomfort that could be involved in cultivating purpose or prioritizing making an impact.
Derrick wants to be in love
While love is very meaningful and important to a well-lived life, how one engages with it could make it a block to cultivating personal purpose.
Derrick is pursuing love (because he believes it will make him happy once he has it) at the cost of many other things in his life.
He puts the vast majority of his free time and energy into dating and finding a wife. He doesn’t focus much on how he wants to impact the world. His job is fine; he is pretty competent at it, it doesn’t stress him out too much, he thinks its a pretty cool thing to do that reflects well on his personality/interests and it gets the bills paid. He has a few hobbies but none that he would prioritize over what his current lover likes because her happiness is more important to hm. When he thinks about what else he wants in life it always comes second to partnership; he would not consider taking risks that would compete with finding and developing a life partnership.
As illustrated in the above examples, pursuing happiness can result in making all sorts of sacrifices. Ironically, living purposefully also involves sacrifices. They may even look similar from the outside, such as working long hours at a task you don’t enjoy. So if both options have similar results, what’s the difference? Well, the sacrifices you make for purpose feel different (in other words, “feel worth it”) because they’re meaningful to you. (This gets expanded upon below in What to do about it: Align with Purpose and Cultivate Joy.)
Pursuing ‘happiness’ may not give us the results we want anyway (those results being general well-being). Happiness expert Daniel Gilbert offers that we’re bad at predicting what will make us happy (2007). Pursuing happiness can often result in feelings of disappointment and disillusionment (Mauss 2011) (Schooler et. al, 2003). We think we’re going to be satisfied when we “make it,” – get the dream job, marry the love of our life, run the marathon, qualify for the program we desire, etc. – but then discover a little ways down the road that the happiness has faded. The higher our expectations of how we’ll feel (known as ‘affective forecasting’), the worse we may end up feeling when it doesn’t work out as we’d hoped.
What’s something you pursued that you thought would make you happy, but turned out it didn’t? Or the happiness just didn’t last as long as you’d hoped?
What To Do About It: Align with Purpose and Cultivate Joy
Instead of putting happiness off in the distance by ‘pursuing’ it, you can experience joy and purpose in the present moment by engaging in actions that increase the odds of you experiencing joy and purpose.
Author Raj Raghunathan uses an apt metaphor about falling asleep to illustrate the challenge of pursuing happiness in his book, “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?” It applies wonderfully to pursuing purpose as well. He suggests that pursuing happiness (or purpose in this case) is best done indirectly, just like pursuing sleep:
“Constantly watching out for the moment when you fall asleep and telling yourself, ‘There! I almost fell asleep right there!’ is, as several insomniacs have discovered, a better recipe for staying awake than it is for dozing off. A better way to get a goodnight’s sleep is to take some steps– like eating a light dinner, working out, and perhaps most important, not getting into a heated argument with one’s spouse about what TV channel to watch– that increase the odds of falling asleep, but then, having taken these steps, not monitor whether one is about to fall asleep. That’s the way to prioritize, but not pursue, sleep. And in much the same fashion, the way to prioritize, but not pursue, happiness is to take the steps that increase the odds of being happy.”
You can increase the odds of experiencing purpose and joy by aligning with purpose, cultivating joy, and better understanding the purpose journey itself.
- Aligning with purpose is the practice of engaging in efforts that are meaningful to you, goal-oriented, and impact the world beyond yourself. People who have purposeful lives often consider themselves happy, but happiness isn’t always a guaranteed part of the purpose package. You’re more likely to experience joy when you live purposefully, and joy (rather than happiness) has a broader and longer-lasting impact on your life. (Templeton 2018)
- Cultivating joy is different from happiness in that it stems from a choice to rejoice in the current situation and is based in meaning. It is the state, feeling, and/or sense of well-being stemming from meaning, purpose, and perspective. Joy is associated with the positive experience of feeling fulfilled.
The Clarify section of purpose is brimming with reflection activities to help you refine what you want from life, what you’re good at, what your beliefs are, and what type of impact you want to make on the world.
The Align section of purpose is filled with activities to get thinking creatively and designing potential approaches to living purposefully. Next, it offers activities to get you out into the world experimenting, learning, and refining.
How we view the journey of purpose (especially in relation to its “end”) has a massive impact on how we navigate and experience the process. Visit this page to learn more about how the purpose journey feels and stock your tool box with perspectives to expand your possibilities.
“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson*
*Keep in mind that happiness is still very important to a satisfying life!
Try This: Are Your Sacrifices Worth it?
Try going through the list in the box above with something you’re currently working towards in mind. Consider if each statement is true or false for you, and write about why in a journal or on an extra piece of paper.
If it turns out many of your sacrifices aren’t “worth it,” you may be pursuing happiness instead of aligning with purpose.
Three People Unhindered by Cultivating Purpose
Jamie started her business a few years ago and is grateful for its success. She finds meaning in being able to sell products that she’s ethically aligned with. She isn’t entirely where she’d like to be, however. She doesn’t want to just be another retail business operating purely for profit. One day she would like to be able to donate part of the profits to organizations she believes in and provide better benefits for her employees. In order to get to that goal, she is working overtime, regularly covering for her employees so they do not feel the extra pressure of growth, and investing in consultants and business classes. She believes her sacrifices are worth the push to be able to have a business she fully believes in- therefore she is at peace with how she is engaging with the process at present. She makes sure to create space for moments of happiness and joy by relishing her relationships, surrounding herself with beauty, and enjoying the process of learning.
Lawrence has been a pharmacist for many years and has become disillusioned with the pharmaceutical industry. Finding himself prescribing a great deal of pain medication has felt morally improper to him. He’s decided he wants to support people’s health and well-being in a way that won’t risk addiction and has enrolled in chiropractic school. In order to continue supporting his family he is taking night classes, which means it will take longer for him to transition to the new career and will keep his schedule very busy for a few years. In the meantime, he focuses on the meaning he experiences in supporting people with prescriptions he believes in, finds purpose in supporting his family, and is aligned with his more extended timeline as it allows for other things he values to be prioritized (mostly his family).
Mr. Chazz is a teacher and a consultant for educators and parents who offers his advice via social media platforms and his podcast. Beginning as a montessori teacher, he experimented with and taught himself at length about child behavior until he began advising his co-workers. His consulting business developed organically from sharing brief videos online. Mr. Chazz couldn’t have anticipated his current career and didn’t have it as a goal post guiding his career or educational decisions, rather it has unfolded as he has pursued his passion and channeled it into a service for others. His journey has been one of experimentation, play, service, and staying true to his values.
- Pursuing purpose makes purpose a destination instead of a journey, rendering it a state of being that lies eternally out of reach in the future. Purpose is less of a destination and more of an orientation towards a destination. When we believe purpose (or happiness) is something we must achieve, it can lead to us comparing our current experience to what we’d like to be feeling or doing ideally.
- The pursuit of conventional happiness orients us towards experiences that are often less meaningful in the long term and can result in meaningless sacrifices. When we talk about ‘pursuing happiness’ we are often talking about conventional happiness, or a generalized positive experience that is largely characterized by the first element of Well-Being: plenty of pleasure, leisure, ease, abundance, and play. The challenge to purpose lies in focusing on and prioritizing pleasure-based goals at the expense of meaning and purpose.
- You can increase the odds of experiencing purpose and joy (which is different from happiness) by aligning with purpose and cultivating joy.