“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.” ― Viktor E. Frankl
On July 26, 1877, a boy was born in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. Jesse Livermore would begin investing at the ripe age of fourteen growing up to become one of the most celebrated investors of his generation.
In a relatively short period of time, Livermore amassed great wealth by taking bold risks through shorting stocks and staying out of the market when conditions weren’t favorable. By 1929, the same year as the stock market crash, he was worth an estimated $100 million.
By 1940 he’d taken his own life.
Today, western culture is obsessed with happiness. The self-help industry is worth billions while documentaries like Happy, Expedition Happiness, Happiness, Project Happiness, and The Economics of Happiness line the rows of our Netflix homepage. How to attain happiness has been the subject of countless scholarly articles, psychological studies, and even become a college course.
Laurie Santos, a psychology professor at Yale teaches a class called, Psychology and the Good Life where twice a week she leads students on how to live a happier life. By the third day of enrollment, 1200 students had signed up for the course. That’s roughly one-fourth of the entire undergraduate class!
What’s more, global antidepressant use is on the rise. According to a study conducted by Business Insider, 11% of Americans over the age of 12 take some form of medication to treat depression.
But perhaps the most ironic and tragic statistic has to do with our country’s youth. Palo Alto, the pulsating heart of Silicon Valley, has the highest teenage suicide rate in Santa Clara County. The hub of innovation has still not found a solution to our desolation.
It turns out, there’s an interesting backstory to our obsession with happiness. In most Indo-European languages the root of happiness was “fate” or “luck.” In other words, the attainment of happiness was a result of happenstance rather than personal agency.
So what changed?
Around 2500 hundred years ago, a really smart guy named Socrates starts telling people happiness is obtainable through human effort. These proclamations were significant because before the founder of Western philosophy came along, the Greeks had a relatively dim view of human existence. They believed happiness was not only rare but an emotion reserved for those the gods showed favor to.
In time, other great thinkers like Aristotle and Plato followed Socrates’s lead, spreading the notion happiness was humanity’s highest calling. More specifically, the Greeks believed happiness was correlated with virtue and personal excellence.
If we fast forward to the 16th and 17th centuries we find other really smart guys still taking the words of those cloaked men to heart. People like John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau become part of an intellectual movement that filled the world with progressive ideas known as The Age of Enlightenment. This period was significant because it laid the foundation for western civilization and much of our thinking today.
But here’s where the notion of happiness pivots yet again.
Instead of associating happiness with virtue, philosophers of The Enlightenment connected it with pleasure. The pursuit of happiness then became about maximizing fulfillment and minimizing pain, which has contributed to the self-indulgent treadmill we’re still trying to get off today.
Designer clothing with Italian names, beachfront property, romantic relationships, and the accumulation of titles may appease our craving spirits for a time but as Schopenhauer noted, chasing happiness is like trying to satisfy an unquenchable thirst. It’s never fulfilled.
The trouble is, rather than accepting our lives are a sum total of ups, downs, and mostly in-betweens we double our efforts towards contentment. We can’t accept unhappiness as a consistent default mode so when we do experience joy we swap appreciation for dread because we know it will end. As a result, we grow progressively more uncomfortable with not being okay. This proves perilous because we must ultimately learn to weather the inevitability of life’s setbacks.
Society has magnified our aversion to pain by conditioning us to believe a lack of happiness is linked to some personal deficiency. We retreat deeper within ourselves, feel stigmatized for expressing our true feelings, and shamefully fill our Zoloft, Prozac, Lexapro, Paxil, and Luvox prescriptions.
This is why advertising psychology is so effective.
Marketers convince us something is lacking in our lives and the product being offered will fill that void. This is followed by an image of someone purportedly living a now sufficient life as a result of the commodity’s purchase.
The truth is, if you’re not consistently happy there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re just human.
A few years ago, author, rabbi, and host of the popular television series, Shalom in the Home was asked his thoughts on happiness. Rabbi Shmuley decided to reference the most established line of the Declaration of Independence. He noted the trouble with the Founding Father’s phrase “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” is the pursuit of happiness is impossible.
“Happiness,” he said, “is a byproduct of living a life of purpose.”
What if he’s right? Perhaps we should stop asking our loved ones about their happiness and start inquiring about the strength of their “why.” Maybe the path to a happier existence is not to aim for it. Is it also possible the endless pursuit of happiness just creates a deeper chasm between us and our perceived notion of the good life? What if instead of chasing happiness we sought lives of meaning?
After all, it was the pursuit of purpose that ultimately enabled Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl to endure the horrors of the concentration camps. In his remarkable book Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl chronicles the starvation, disease, and executions that became a daily part of life. He also shares the discoveries that helped him survive.
- There is meaning in suffering.
- One has a choice in how they respond to any given situation.
- The more you aim at happiness the more you’ll miss it.
Having purpose insulates us from our self-destructive nature by illuminating the value of suffering. As Nietzsche noted, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
So how does one pursue a life of meaning?
By developing character.
When we seek a more integrated life — an existence of integrity and three-dimensionality we build our resilience to life’s woes. Happiness alone is not sustainable because of its fickle nature.
What’s more, the pursuit of exceptional character has two worthy consequences. When we commit to the lifelong quest of becoming better humans we drastically minimize the likelihood of stagnation and passivity. We live until we die rather than simply veiling dead souls in bodies only alive biologically.
By setting ambitious targets to bridge the divides within ourselves and live honorably we discover the attainment of our goals is not the point but rather who we become in its pursuit.
Second, by developing our strengths we have a greater chance of stumbling on our “why.” We take pride in our gifts, whether innate or developed, and look for ways to contribute those attributes to something greater than ourselves. This, in turn, reminds us our existence is in some way linked to improving or illuminating that of another’s. Life then becomes about living for something other than ourselves.
Finally, the pursuit of meaning actually helps pave the way to happiness. As Frankl noted, “Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.” By cultivating our “why” we indirectly aim at joy, which paradoxically proves far more effective than setting our sights directly towards it.
In the end, the key to a life of greater contentment lies in reverse-engineering our approach. Forget chasing happiness. Instead, pursue a life of purpose.