Ditch the Pursuit of Happiness


I’m not saying ditch happiness. I’m suggesting that we ditch the pursuit of happiness, which I believe causes us distress for two reasons.

First, being in pursuit means that we’re chasing something that is interminably out of reach, something for which we are continually striving, leaving us in a limbo state of longing.

Second, being in pursuit also implies that happiness is a destination at which we’ll arrive one day in the future, and then we’ll be happy.

“I’ll be happy when ______” is not an uncommon refrain.

“I’ll be happy when I’m elevated to partner,” or “I’ll be happy if I win this jury trial,” making happiness contingent on an outcome that is beyond our control.

We associate happiness with a feeling of elation, like that which we experience when we receive a gift, or see a dear friend, or eat ice cream. Pleasure is definitely a form of happiness, and the one we most associate with the term, yet happiness is more than fleeting bursts of elation or intense giddiness.

Happiness is actually an experience that we can have on command, even when life feels tough and uncertain.

The Case for Happiness

Let’s name what we’re talking about, and then land on how we acquire this state, a state deemed so important that it’s enshrined in the U.S. Declaration of Independence (whose language has perhaps created the conundrum).

Psychology tells us that a happy person is one who experiences frequent agreeable welcome emotions, such as joy, interest, love, tranquility, curiosity, and satisfaction, to name just a few, and infrequent, though not absent, unpleasant emotions, such as sadness, disappointment, apathy, shock or anger.

We need our entire emotional range. We cannot, nor would we want to, live life without experiencing unwelcome emotions. It’s those emotions that enable empathy, fuel change, propel necessary action, and bolster appreciation.

Sounds good. How do cultivate I on-demand happiness?

Three straightforward steps:

  • proactively finding meaning in our work,

  • enjoyment in nonwork activities

  • find and appreciate what went “right” each day

The joy of effort

We can be in a state of happiness when we’re engaged in our work, even, or especially, when we’re engaged in challenging work, when we connect to the purpose in that effort.

The definition of happiness includes meaning, or engagement in worthwhile effort, so “I’ll be happy if I win this jury trial,” is replaced with “I’m happy to be lead counsel in this jury trial.” Then being in trial itself is happiness, even with its accompanying angst. The two aren’t incompatible; focusing on the purpose in the effort, the excitement, and recognizing the good fortune to be in that position, are happiness-generators.

Where in your work do you experience flow? (And if you don’t, let’s seriously have a conversation. Sounds like a topic for my next post.)

Play beyond work

Lawyers have admitted to me that they are “lawyering” all of the time, even when it’s not necessary. Many have left activities that once brought them satisfaction, far behind with the bar exam.

Is there something that you’ve left behind? Playing guitar, collecting stamps, painting, reading comic  books… the list, of course, is endless.

Beyond the sheer enjoyment that we get from re-engaging with a formerly loved activity, or immersing ourselves in a new one, engaging in play has many benefits that actually improve our work. We give our cognitive brains a rest, allow our noncognitive brain to process the work of the day, and enhance our whole brains with this new activity. And it doesn’t require lots of time. The benefits are real, even when we engage for just a few minutes.

I recently assembled my first 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle. Whether I huddled over it for a few minutes or an hour, this new activity pushed all of my “feel good” buttons—the novelty, the effort, the challenge, the satisfaction—and left me feeling light and accomplished after each session. I was pretty darn happy.

Writing these posts makes me happy, too. I enjoy the process and often lose track of time. It lifts my mood to think that someone reading this will benefit. It’s not always easy, but effort is a greater source of happiness than easy.

What went right today?

Taking a moment to appreciate what went well each day is a surefire ingredient of happiness. Check it out.

How might you experience more on-demand happiness, so that you have happiness now, not someday?

Let me know. I’ll be downloading some happiness with my new jigsaw puzzle.