One of the most important mental shifts I’ve made in my own life was this: I stopped making happiness my goal.
I get many people coming through my door for coaching and whose response to “What is it you want” is: “I just want to be happy.” Then I know we’re in for it.
Admittedly, I was among the "I just want to be happy" clan myself. One might even consider me a minor fanatic since I didn't just want happy—I wanted shiny, easy, mess-free, perfect happiness.
Of course, I think we can all agree that most humans want to feel happy—what with the tremendous "happiness industry" cashing in on this and all. So then what's the problem here?
The problem’s not the desire for happiness, the yearning itself is natural. We’re wired to want to feel good.
The problem is that this goal leads people down a difficult and ironically, unhappy, path.
Here's what I learned the hard way: the “I just want to be happy” stance is a slippery slope to mediocrity and small living.
First off: happiness is not a goal you can set and achieve. The more you aim for it, the more it eludes you. Happiness doesn’t respond to effort or muscle, much like how staring at the clock doesn't help you fall asleep. (Quite the opposite, in fact.)
Happiness happens when you're living well. It’s a by-product of living a life that fits and inspires you.
In practice what I've seen is that people who set their sights on happiness don't just want more goodness—they're running full steam away from discomfort—which is a horse of a different color. Think “spiritual bypass.” There’s no way to get happier or healthier if you keep ducking what challenges you.
Seekers often use their quest for happiness as a way to justify smaller choices. Here's what happens: when our goal is "just feeling happy," we tend to make choices based on short-term satisfaction instead of big-picture greatness. We can wind up putting our moods ahead of our higher goals. Think about how often in your life you didn’t do something you know you should have because you weren’t in the mood. How far has that gotten you?
I think we can all admit that we can’t be happy all of the time. It creates an unreasonable expectation that can leave us disappointed or confused.
Perhaps the most important point is that not everything worth doing evokes feelings of happiness. As an entrepreneur for almost 20 years, I can say that there were plenty of moments in my life that I would not describe as happy.
The day that I first meditated for six hours and daydreamed about killing my teacher to make it stop? Not super joyful. When I took the national exam to be an Acupuncturist or launched a website? Highly frustrating. When I chose to end my marriage for my greater good? Heart wrenching. In fact, many of these moments just plain sucked. Some were painful as hell. But what I learned about myself and life was invaluable and meaningful beyond belief.
Many of the most purposeful and memorable moments of our lives challenge us in unbelievable ways. We may feel energized. Inspired? Certainly. Enthused? Often. But happy? It's simply not always the dominant state. Setting your sights at happiness won't bring you the alive experience that you’re looking for.
Instead I say aim for adventure. Aim for expansion.
Set your compass toward meaning, aliveness, and inspiration. Whatever works for you and gets you awake and in the game. Just shifting your goal from wanting to be happy to living an adventure changes your state of being. It gives you the open, engaged and resilient mindset you need to take risks and live life to its fullest.
Ditch happiness as a goal. I think you’ll be happy you did.