THE BLOG
08/19/2014 11:29 am ET Updated Oct 19, 2014

Is the Pursuit of Happiness the Wrong Goal?

It's been a sad week for Hollywood. Lauren Bacall and Robin Williams, both lost to us in body, if not in spirit or body of work. But the vast emphasis has been on the tragic death of Robin, casting a spotlight on mental illness, and in particular depression.

I, along with so many others, pondered how someone who gave so much to others, who had so much going for him in his life, could be so alone... so unhappy as to take his life? Of course depression is an illness, not a choice. It's chemical as well as psychological. Yet I can't help wondering how this universal near-obsession with being happy impacts those who are already unhappy. Does it make them feel worse to think that everyone else is surfing on clouds of joy?

It caused me to think more about the emphasis today on "being happy," a topic on which I too have added my voice... seeing happiness as the end-all be-all of our existence. I began to wonder a few things, mainly: 1) is happiness the wrong goal? and 2) is part of the problem that we all have different definitions for happiness?

Recently a mentor I respect asked me what I was feeling. My reply was that all was well and I was feeling calm and peaceful. His response was that calm was not enough. There was something wrong with me if I wasn't feeling exuberant and joy-filled. In that moment I began to question my state of peace. Why wasn't I happy? That immediately cast me back to an earlier moment in my life, in my early 20s when I awoke one morning feeling content and immediately thought, "Whoa, I'm not a cow... I need to feel more than content... where is my joy?" Which plunged me into a state of discontent.

What Is That Elusive Thing Called Happiness?

When you ask people what happiness means for them, you get a variety of responses. The Zen response is being satisfied with what you have... not wanting more. And certainly research backs up that more doesn't make us happier: A 2010 study done at Princeton University found that (at least salary-wise) the sweet spot was $75,000. That below that line people were less happy, not just because of the lack of higher salary, but because it exacerbated the problems or stresses that they had in their lives. People making more than $75k, however, were not any happier. The study also found that 85 percent of the people reported that they were happy most of the time, although 40 percent admitted to being stressed at the same time. Can you be stressed and happy?

Of course, income isn't the only contributor to happiness. We've all known people who had far less salary, few possessions, but a richness of love and friends. And they were plenty happy. So happiness can be wealth in the form of love and friendships. Family. Community.

For some people, happiness is living life to the fullest in the present moment. Savoring whatever they are doing... whether it's gazing at the clouds or having a good meal. Mindfully. Gratefully.

A feeling of gratitude is often given as the answer for what makes people happy. Reminding yourself of the things you are grateful for can raise your level of content. Some can find gratitude in the smallest things. One woman posted in a gratitude group that she was organizing a closet and a piece of glass frame fell from an upper shelf and struck her. She was grateful that all she had was a scratch on her forehead. It's all a matter of perspective.

Certainly perspective itself contributes to happiness. When we are confronted with someone else's tragedy we are often grateful for what we have in comparison. Or when we ourselves come through a crisis, even the worse for wear, we can be happy in our current improved state.

Doing happy things can make you, at least temporarily, happy. Going on vacation, falling in love, watching a great movie or concert. Situations and activities can improve our levels of contentment and pleasure in the moment. So can a good meal. Or watching a baby laugh. Or even a few moments in a quiet place, just enjoying the sun on our skin and the sounds in the air. Nature is a happy place for many.

There are so many other ways of "being" that make people happy; I've barely scratched the surface. But among the top reasons for happiness we find:

1. Fulfillment. Whether at work, in relationships, in pursuits of the things we are passionate about, there's no doubt that feeling fulfilled creates happiness.

2. Love, friendship and community. Having good relationships not only improves happiness but even health and longevity. This extends to pets as well as people.

3. Giving. That same Princeton study mentioned above also found that people who were charitable, giving of their time and or money, were happier than people who spent on themselves.

4. Gratitude. It really does help to remind yourself each day of those things you are grateful for.

5. Mindfulness and living in the moment. Finding the joy in each action and moment can not only elevate your contentment, but reduces stress as well

6. Playfulness. The tagline on my emails, a quote from George Bernard Shaw, reads "We don't stop playing because we get old. We get old because we stop playing." It's hard not to be happy when you're being playful.

7. Environment. While it is perfect possible to be happy living in a tent, for most of us having an environment that nurtures us beyond the basic survival needs is necessary for happiness. It doesn't have to be big and grand, but it has to reflect our true selves.

8. Nature. It's been found that we all have a need for nature, whether we're outdoor adventurers or indoor lovers of plants and animals.

9. Activity. Whether it's walking in nature, exercising, or dancing, research shows that keeping ourselves moving is vital for happiness. Chair dancing counts.

10. Rest. Yes, sleep and relaxation is important for health and happiness.

I believe my mentor and my younger self are wrong. It's impossible to live in or even pursue a constant state of joy and happiness. Even if we could, it would likely soon lose its luster, and we'd be seeking newer ways to sustain our bliss. What we need is not a frantic scramble for the extremes of joy and exuberance, but the calm, gentle and longer-lasting effects from living a full, balanced and connected life.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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