THE BLOG
12/17/2014 01:39 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Pursuit of Happiness

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…Maybe that’s the problem.

Pursuing happiness is like chasing a rainbow. The faster we go, the harder we try, the farther off it becomes.

I have learned that happiness is not a pursuit -- it’s a choice. Happiness is a state of mind, obtainable at any time, in any moment of your choosing.

Licking a cone of creamy vanilla Häagen-Dazs makes me happy. But if someone knocks the cone out of my hand, I’m no longer happy. Happiness can be fleeting and unstable, like that ice cream cone. It’s really just a temporary sensation of pleasure, like entertainment, shopping, eating or sex.

Our beliefs about what will make us happy are heavily influenced by other people, Hollywood or commercial media. We race along this “hedonic treadmill” perpetually feeling like something is missing, like happiness is one toy, one trinket or one promotion away, but always just beyond our reach.

And still no rainbow. Disappointing career choices, heartbreaking relationships and midlife crises indicate that our assumptions about happiness and the pursuit of it often miss the mark.

It’s not the pursuit of happiness we should concern ourselves with, but rather the pursuit of fulfillment, purpose and significance.

If I have created a life of meaning in which I have a deep sense of purpose and value, that won’t change because someone knocks my ice cream cone over. Fulfillment is a state of existence, not a fleeting emotion.

What then creates a fulfilling life?

That’s the all-important question you have to answer for yourself. In fact, it’s the subject of the classic tome Man’s Search for Meaning (which I recommend!) by psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl. Typically a life of meaning requires deep relationships, a connection to a community, a sense of well-being, contribution to others and continual challenge, growth, learning and progress.

Now those are some virtues worth pursuing. And once you start out on this pursuit, you will realize that crossing the finish line is not what’s most rewarding; the journey itself and the anticipation of achieving your goal is what’s so exhilarating and wonderful.

So what about being happy?

There are two ways you can choose to be happy at any moment…

One: Think about all you have to be grateful for. Some of the happiest people I have ever met are those who have comparatively few accouterments to be happy about. When you feel gratitude, you cannot feel fear or worry at the same time. Gratitude washes it all away. If you are reading this, you’re breathing and above ground, so you have many blessings to be grateful for -- just remind yourself at any moment you want to feel happy.

The second way to choose happiness --the best way, in my opinion -- is to do something to make someone else happy. The person who bestows happiness always gets much more of it in return.

My mentor Jim Rohn taught me, “Giving starts the receiving process.” When I first heard Jim say this, I thought he meant giving created indebtedness on the part of the receiver -- that you gave so you could get back. But I had it all wrong. Jim taught me that the real gift -- the lasting benefit of giving -- is what the act itself does for you. In essence, giving to others is the greatest gift you can give yourself -- it in fact, will make YOU happy.

Sure giving feels good, but there’s more to it than that. Helping others incites physical and emotional responses within us. When we direct our energy and focus on meeting others’ needs, we push aside our brooding and negative emotions, especially those that contribute to stress-induced psychological and physical illnesses. Studies reveal that when we help others, we release extra amounts of endorphins into our system, and we get what researchers call a “helper’s high.”

Giving has a direct impact on the body’s neurological, hormonal and immune systems -- it can even prolong your life. One study found that older individuals who are actively involved in helping others outlive those who aren’t. The physical benefits of helping others have been shown to have a greater impact on longevity than exercising four times a week, if you can believe that!

The benefits extend beyond the physical, also fostering traits that undergird a successful life. As a result, our careers and relationships often improve when we purposefully seek to make a difference in others’ lives. As Gandhi said, “The fragrance always remains on the hand that gives the rose.” Go make someone happy, this holiday season.