Over the past year, I’ve had numerous conversations about my future. In these conversations, I’ve noticed one piece of advice presented more often than any other: “Do what makes you happy”. I felt uncomfortable when this phrase became the instant answer to what I should do with my future. But I couldn’t pinpoint why.
It seems like a common sense notion. We want to be happy in what we do for a career. Happy in relationships or marriage. Happy in sipping a cup of coffee in the morning. A life full of happiness, it seems, is the best life to have.
But as I thought about it more, I realized why I still felt uncomfortable. Something seemed wrong with using happiness as a foundation to base all of your life decisions upon. Specifically, I considered three factors that cause happiness to fall short of being this dependable foundation.
If falls short because it’s feeling-based. There are many ways to define the word “happy”, but the definition almost always revolves around some sort of feeling. While this feeling is a desirable one to have, basing your life predominately off a feeling creates a problem: it leaves you holding on to an unstable foundation.
As humans, our feelings fluctuate; we can feel happy one moment, sad the next, and angry later on. Since our feelings change so often, depending on any one feeling will leave you unstable as you go through the ups and downs of life. A good foundation would involve something that stays constant as feelings fluctuate. Happiness is not that foundation.
Happiness also falls short because it’s temporary. Something that causes us to have an overarching sense of happiness can easily fade away, whether in ten years or tomorrow. For example, if you are working at a job that makes you consistently happy, and you are laid off from that job, the feeling of happiness you received from that job disintegrates.
When happiness becomes a life foundation, we can try to solidify the foundation with things we think will make us happy. But once those things are gone, the foundation crumbles. A good life foundation would involve something that lasts at least a lifetime, and doesn’t rely on things that could be gone tomorrow. Happiness, again, is not that foundation.
Finally, happiness falls short because a focus on happiness leads to an unrealistic view of the future. When people think about the future events that could make them happy, they often idealize future outcomes – everything will go right, and nothing will go wrong. This mindset may lead to comments like, “If [insert event here] happens in my life, I’ll finally be happy.”
A common example of this idealization involves dating relationships. Let’s say a man who is single thinks that a dating relationship is the one thing that will make him happy. The man enters into a relationship and begins to experience plenty of happy moments. But the relationship eventually leads to moments of anger, disappointment, and jealousy. The man may overall be more happy than he was before, but the the ideal sense of happiness he visualized never came.
Just like this man, we might think that a particular event will give us a constant sense of happiness. But any event in our lives is bound to bring both happy and unhappy moments. The prediction that we will finally be happy if only something happens is simply unrealistic. A good foundation would provide a realistic picture of the future, even if we don’t know exactly what will take place. Happiness is not that foundation.
What is that foundation? I may tackle that question in a future post. But for now, I’ll say that it’s not happiness because it fails to:
1. Stay constant as feelings fluctuate
2. Last for a lifetime or longer
3. Offer a realistic picture of the future
This post is not intended to be an “attack on happiness”; I hope that all of our lives are abundant with happy moments. Instead, I wrote this post because I see an over-emphasis of happiness permeating throughout our culture, where it becomes the main thing that drives the decisions people make.
But happiness doesn’t deserve to be the driver. Our lives can be used for purposes much greater than the purpose of being individually happy. And that’s why “do what makes you happy” is an incomplete answer to an important life decision.
More simply put, happiness isn’t the answer.