Recently, I spoke with a young mom who was thinking about 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 really happy? How often do we think, “She has a wonderful family, a good-looking partner, 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?
Some 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 people think they’ll be happy if they look good and have more money. But is that so?
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, or 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?”
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! Woohoo! But what if I come home and Diane is in a bad mood and barely looks up when I walk in the door? Now, I’m unhappy! If I am looking forward to some strawberry ice cream and come home, and my visiting daughter finished the carton, I’m sad.
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 more often dependent on conditions and circumstances outside your control. What goes up will always go down. When your well-being is dependent on events outside of your control, inevitably, you’ll be unhappy. What you acquire today can be lost tomorrow. Good looks will inevitably wither with age. What was valuable yesterday may lose value today.
I would propose that we pursue something else: well-being. Here’s how I see it:
• 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’s always nice to get what you desire — as long as you don’t think you can hold on to it).
• It comes from being the person you want to be, aspire to be, and can be.
• It comes from liking who you are.
• It springs from being in balance with yourself, the world around you and 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.
Nourishing these qualities will help us experience greater well-being. They are far more enduring than the temporary pleasure of obtaining what you want.
So perhaps we should rethink the American dream — we all have the right and responsibility to nurture our own and other’s well-being.
Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www. everettclinic.com/ healthwellness-library.html.