The Solution to Happiness

Our nation has a happiness fetish.

Each year, publishers print thousands of books on the subject. Talk show hosts offer advice from psychologists and therapists. Magazine covers promise “The Short-Cut to Happiness” or “The 7 Secrets of Wedded Bliss.”

You might reasonably wonder why the market is so large. A Pew Research Center poll reports that almost 85 percent of Americans say they are happy or very happy.

Yet millions want to be happier still. And they feel they could be, if only they pursued it a little more ardently.

Except… that won’t work.

Happiness is a by-product. It is achieved indirectly, by producing something beautiful or useful or by making someone else happy. The search for happiness, it turns out, is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.

Take a look around. Much of the economic misery we see today is due to the unbridled pursuit of bigger houses, fancier cars and more exorbitant trips. The lure of consumer culture and an obsession with more is precisely what keeps so many from contentment.

The Stoics argued that happiness results not from pursuing affluence and status but rather virtue and wisdom. Pythagoras, the sixth-century BC philosopher and mathematician, asked that his followers take time, before going to sleep each night, to pose three questions: What have I done? Where have I failed myself? What responsibility have I not fulfilled?

If we fixate instead on gratifying all our desires, we become superficial, acquisitive, deluded or foolish. The headlong rush for happiness can also blind us to serious problems or numb us to the pain of others.

After all, every life is lived between the poles of joy and sadness. Laughter and love are part of it. But so are pain and suffering. To deny the tragic aspects of the world is to suppress a large part of what it means to be human.

Playwright Tennessee Williams understood this. Asked in an interview to define happiness, he replied, “Insensitivity, I guess.”

Great artists often try to awaken us – or stir our conscience – by reminding us of the more doleful aspects of life. In response to the 16th Street Church bombing in 1963, an attack by the Ku Klux Klan in Birmingham that killed four girls, saxophonist John Coltrane wrote Alabama, a blues-based instrumental that expresses anguish and sorrow more eloquently than words.

Poetry, too, can inspire us with its sorrowful realizations.

Seventeenth-century British poet Robert Herrick famously wrote, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may/ Old Time is still a-flying; / And this same flower that smiles today / Tomorrow will be dying.

Shakespeare captured the same sentiment in Cymbeline: “Golden lads and girls all must / As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.”

History shows that men and women of genius are often melancholic. Consider writers like Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf. Composers like Rossini and Mahler. Statesmen like Lincoln and Churchill. Artists like Michelangelo and Gauguin. Philosophers like Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard.

In 1890, Vincent Van Gogh, overcome by feelings of worthlessness, walked out into the southern French countryside and shot himself in the gut with a pistol. Just 37, he died from the wound two days later. Yet in the previous two years – and despite his bleakness – he completed more than two hundred paintings, many of them masterpieces.

Handel, after years spent at the top of the musical world, fell into terrible poverty, ill health and deep depression. Yet from the depths of profound despair, he completed his greatest work, The Messiah.

Beethoven raged against advancing deafness and his own finitude, yet created immortal works during this period, including his Fifth symphony, his only opera, Fidelio, his late string quartets and the Ninth symphony with its triumphant Ode to Joy.

Not all innovators are melancholy, of course, and not all melancholy souls are innovative. And I don’t mean to romanticize clinical depression, an often-debilitating illness.

But there can be no joy without sorrow. No sunrise without the night. Periods of unhappiness are natural and even valuable. How are we to measure our best moments except against those that are not?

Plus, contentment often saps our motivation. Dissatisfaction is the great spur to progress. Imagine the innovations we would lack today if we were satisfied with quill pens, horse-drawn carriages, or the “evil spirits” theory of disease.

Today millions equate happiness with money. But studies show that once people are lifted out of poverty, their happiness is not dependent on income. More often reported levels of well-being are a combination of genetics, health, circumstances and coping skills.

Happiness results when our aspirations are being fulfilled and we are optimistic about the future, when we are developing our capabilities or helping others develop theirs. In short, we are happiest when happiness itself is not the goal.

Contemporary philosopher Robert Nozick writes that “We want experiences, fitting ones, of profound connection with others, of deep understanding of natural phenomena, of love, of being profoundly moved by music or tragedy, or doing something new and innovative, experiences very different from the bounce and rosiness of the happy moments.”

Of all the prescriptions for happiness, perhaps the least helpful one is the now-fashionable idea that you can defeat the blues by “paying attention to yourself.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The happiest individuals are invariably those whose ordinary, everyday mode of living is being busy and unconcerned with self.

That doesn’t mean sacrificing your interests for someone else’s. It only means asking not just “what would it take to make me happy?” but also “What limits should I set on this pursuit?” “How should I weigh my own happiness against that of others?” And “What else matters aside from happiness?”

Life is also about education, work, courage, honor, empathy, and resilience in the face of hardship. Real contentment comes from a feeling that your life is worthwhile, that it is dissolved into something meaningful and great. That leads to gratitude.

And gratitude, it turns out, is an indispensable part of happiness.

[Ed. Note:  Alex Green is the author of excellent books like, The Secret of Shelter Island: Money and What Matters, and Beyond Wealth, that show you how to lead a “rich” life during trying economic times.]
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  • Peggy

    I could not agree with you more about happiness. It is only when I am sincerely helping others, and forgetting about myself do I experience total happiness

    • Craig Ballantyne

      Thanks for sharing Peggy, I feel the same way.

  • Very good.

  • An avid reader of ETR, I am nonetheless a “lurker”, reading the day’s offering and moving on. But today, Alex Green nailed it. So, this is my first l comment to y’all. As a practicing psychoanalyst, I hear daily the fretting and angst of not being happy. Confronting them to get out of their head and into the world is generally met with resistance and, at times, anger. But Alex describes eloquently my motivations for such advise…. Service to others and embracing the reality that without sorrow, there is no joy; without ugliness, no beauty. Thanks!

    • Craig Ballantyne

      Thank you Dr. Keith, greatly appreciated your feedback. Hope to hear from you more often.

  • Eileen

    I am glad you posted this article. Too often in the personal development or trading (two industries I follow), I see the marketers show pictures of their house in the Caymans (or whatever) and say you can have this too if you pay $10,000 or whatever to me and I will personally mentor you on how to get what you want all while showing the house. While the person posting the video may be quite happy, it does not follow that I would be happy with a big house in my favorite island resort, especially on 2 hours a week. After purchasing a few of these, I can attest that all work on emotions in order to make you want that to learn something new or get up at 5:30 in the morning.

    There is nothing wrong with his except for one thing: more often than not, when he house shows up, you say I’m not satisfied. Or worse the house doesn’t show up. Why? Alex hit it – happiness is internally defined. When I lived in San Francisco, some of the happiest people I met were homeless. They accepted responsibility about their homeless state. All too often the skeptics said they were lying; I did too. After having most things, I can say they definitely were not lying and can see that acceptance of self is why they were at peace with themselves and were happy despite owning nothing.

    • Craig Ballantyne

      Well said, Eileen, thank you.

  • Hi.Craig.Happiness to me.A few years ago i was in Australia doing a public speaking course.We where all learning stage presence and each one of us doing a talk in little groups.after a couple of days i noticed people talking about there business all good i thought.When it come to my turn i did talk a little about business exploits.One thing hit me while i talking and that was the importance of my family my Son and Daughter and grandson.The first time i met my Grandson he was in the UK and i in New Zealand.After arriving in UK am speaking now.i a got to my sons door to see this little boy 14 months old. him singing wheels on the bus. and just looking at Lennard my grandson my heart sunk thinking i am missing this little man. my first grandson.I said to the group around me. i know am not talking business.but you must agree its great thing to talk about.i told the group how much i loved him and missed not being over there in UK. with him.there was a few tears i can tell you.After all was finished talking. we went for a cup of Tea or Coffee.A Chinese business man one of the group. came up to me and said he enjoyed my talk and that his father had died young without ever really being with him when he was a young boy.This guy said he was in business since he was young and that he had 2 kids.he said this reminded him that he never really got great quality time with his kids.and i reminded him why he was here on make sure his children made it for there future.after the break guess what this man said he said to the group. when i leave this course i am going to make sure from now on. i see my kids every day. he said to me if i go and speak publicly he would come and see me.
    is this a good reason to do good business??i think so.

  • Kevin

    This was an extremely insightful and timely article for me personally. I read something recently about there being a higher propensity for people who are more analytical and over think things being unhappy at a minimum and depressed on the more extreme end of things. I also thing that we sometimes define these things in a very black and white manner. We are either happy or unhappy which I know for me personally is not true. There are lots of points on the scale in between and its really important to be able to recognize that.

    There’s a lot to the idea of being happier when we are not thinking directly about happiness. When I start to feel like I’m in a rut or that I’m dissatisfied with something in my life, keeping busy doing things I like doing like martial arts and running and going to the gym really helps me keep level headed about whatever it is that is bothering me. And funnily enough, more often than not, my perspective on the issue changes as a result. Nothing factual has changed, just how I perceive it.

    Anyway..great article. I had no idea that so many famous people were melancholy but it makes sense.

  • I am also like Keith, a long time reader and lurker although I think I did comment many months ago.

    Most of my life was spent in Africa where most of the population lived in poverty, suffered malnutrition, disease, corrupt governments and could only expect short and unpleasant lives.

    The few people who owned even beat up, unroadworthy old cars were perceived to be wealthy beyond belief.

    Yet, I would put my neck on the block to support my conviction that most of those people were far happier than our average North American or European.

    Why? A big reason is that their days were filled with the purpose of staying alive and finding food. Although they might have dreamed of the sort of luxuries we take for granted, they did not have the time or energy to let the lack of those luxuries make them miserable.

    Makes you think.

    • Craig Ballantyne

      Thank you Peter, greatly appreciated.

  • Amare

    This article is so true for me that I am usually happy as a byproduct of adding value, doing the best I can, connecting with others, help others, educate myself, solve problems, achieve what I set out to do, instead of trying to define happiness or search the meaning of life. Thank you. Amare

    • Craig Ballantyne

      Happy to help, Amare.

  • Craig,
    Each one of us has a passion wired into our DNA at birth. Happiness comes from the discovery and following of that passion. About 13 years ago, I discovered a simple (but lengthy) process to discover one’s own inner passion while in the pursuit of my own passion. I have since, privately coached people of a variety of ages to use the process to discover their own passion with great success I am currently writing a book based on that discovery and how to make the most of it. Part of my happiness will be seeing others finally discovering what really makes them tick.

  • Margaret S.

    Just want to thank you for posting this article. I couldnt agree more with everything you said here, the way you said it, was exactly what I needed to hear, as if you read my mind.
    Thanks again, and keep up the good work on helping us!

    • Craig Ballantyne

      Happy to help, thanks Margaret.

  • Mary

    Thank you. …….The bottom line:

    Happiness is internally defined.

  • caymannie

    If I might add this… I am studying a course called “A Brief History of Mankind”, a wonderful and educational course being done as a MOOC with
    They have a video of one lecture that I was watching just this morning about the very nature of happiness and what it is……from an historians perspective.

  • Dianne

    For reasons that are complex, what brings me great happiness is simply waking up in our beautiful home with my beloved husband next to me. We have survived my diagnosis of cervical cancer, my suicide attempt in 2006 and a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes at 52 years of age and a diagnosis of Parkinson’s last year at 55 years of age and also on November 9 a fall from a ladder onto Saltillo tile which resulted in two fractured disks in my spine which left me in a back brace for 6 weeks. Is it any wonder that waking up up in our bed is the thing that brings me the greatest joy ever?
    Dianne! Who is happy to just be alive!

    • Craig Ballantyne

      Thank you Dianne!

  • Kathy Gunn

    I believe that coping skills should be at the top of the list rather than being listed last.

    I have studied coping skills and indeed they are learned not genetically inherited.

    The inheritance is one of lack of education in how to cope and it goes hand in hand with lack of self preservation and lack of self friendship. One of Craig Ballantyne’s 5 pillars of success is to seek a support group of like minded people. Happiness is I hear, being aware of breath and that it is ok to take care of ones self as though one is taking care of a friend. Indeed playing with a friend.
    The article states that studies show that once people are lifted out of poverty, their happiness is not dependent on income. More often reported levels of well-being are a combination of genetics, health, circumstances and coping skills.

    My study has proven to me that once coping skills are in place the rest takes care of its self and happiness is attainable at last. It comes and goes and everything is just fine. Just fine. I was educated in Coping Skills by Burt Goldman he is on you tube.