Instead of happiness, why not pursue well-being?

The qualities of well-being are far more enduring than the fleeting satisfaction of getting what you want.

Recently, I spoke with a young mom, who was contemplating her son’s future. “Really,” she said, “I don’t care what he does for a living, as long as he’s happy.” This sentiment is deeply ingrained in the American imagination, articulated by Thomas Jefferson, — we all have the unalienable right to pursue happiness.

And pursue it, we do. But are we happy? How often do we think, “She has a wonderful family, a good-looking husband, a great job and lives in a beautiful house — but is she really happy?” While the pursuit of success, however it’s defined, should lead us into this promised land, there’s often doubt. So, what is happiness? How do we attain it? How can we keep it? Or can we?

Many adults think that happiness comes from being “skinny and rich.” There are thousands of books on how to lose weight and how to make more money. Many men and women think that if they look good and have more money, they’ll find happiness. But is it true?

Along with good looks and material success, many individuals seek status in other ways: occupational prestige (becoming a doctor, lawyer, or corporate president), living in a big house, and reflected glory from their children’s success. But at the end of the day, do you sometimes wonder, “Am I happy?” “Are my friends happier than me?” or, “Could I be happier?”

Personally, I think the pursuit of happiness is overrated. If I come home tonight, and my wife is glad to see me, gives me a big hug and kiss, I’m happy! Woo-hoo! But what if I come home and Diane’s in a bad mood, and barely looks up when I walk in the door. Now, I’m unhappy. If I’m looking forward to some strawberry ice cream and I come home, and my daughter finished off the carton, I’m unhappy.

All of this might lead you to think that happiness is getting what you want or desire. And therein lies the rub. Getting what you desire is often dependent on conditions and circumstances that are outside of your control. What goes up will always go down. When your well-being is dependent on circumstances outside of your control, inevitably you’ll be unhappy. What you acquire can be lost — good looks will inevitably wither with age. What is valuable today may lose value tomorrow (remember the housing market a few years ago?).

I would propose that we pursue something else — I call it well-being. Here’s what it is:

• It’s a sense of wholeness and wellness that comes from the center of your being.

• It’s independent of getting what you want (although it is always nice to get what you desire — if you don’t think you can hold on to it).

• It comes from being the person that you want to be, that you aspire to be, and that you can be.

• It comes from liking who you are.

• It springs from being in balance with yourself, with the world around you, and with others.

• It arises from accepting what you cannot change and the willingness to make change when it’s time to.

• It originates from a sense of appreciation and gratitude for all that you do have.

• It emanates from having compassion for others.

• It comes from being kind.

• It grows with inner peace, reflection and awareness of self and the world around you.

These qualities need to be nourished to grow into an experience of well-being. But they’re far more enduring than the temporary pleasure of obtaining what you want.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www. healthwellness-library.html.

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