Should Happiness Be the Goal? Not Necessarily

By The Fix staff 04/12/21

Happiness feels nice, but feeling fulfilled could lead to longer-term success in recovery.

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In our culture, there’s a big focus on happiness. We’re told to do the things that bring us joy, and we dance to songs called “Happy.” But on a psychological level, happiness isn’t the most important metric to measure well-being.

“Although Positive Psychology has focused on happiness, many psychologists say living a personally meaningful life is more important,” says Geoff Thompson, program director at Sunshine Coast Health Centre in British Columbia.

At Sunshine Coast Health Centre, Thompson and his team follow the principles of psychiatrist and neurologist Viktor Frankl. Frankl believed that creating a meaningful life was one of the most important pursuits that a person could undertake. Happiness, on the other hand, wasn’t something that a person could prioritize, Frankl believed.

“Frankl would say most people mistakenly believe they can pursue happiness as a goal; however, happiness, according to Frankl cannot be pursued; it must ‘ensue,’” from creating a meaningful life, Thompson says. 

Meaning versus happiness

We might assume that a meaningful life is a happy one, and vice versa, but that isn’t always the case.

“Research on happiness suggests that it has more to do with getting personal needs met and being comfortable,” Thompson explains. “Meaning, on the other hand, has more to do with developing courage and resilience, making sense of suffering, and helping others.”

Some people who have deeply meaningful lives don’t feel happy in their daily lives — which complicates the question of how to create a life filled with happiness.

“Frankl said that happiness ensues from living a meaningful life. You don’t need to work at it. But it’s tricky,” Thompson says. “For example, Mother Teresa was not a particularly happy woman, even though she helped many starving children. We know this because of her letters to her spiritual advisors, which questioned why she suffered so much.”

The happiness choice

Modern Positive Psychology professes that people can choose to be happy. However, Thompson believes that the choice to be happy comes from choosing to pursue a personally meaningful life.

Taking these steps can help you create personal meaning:

  • Know yourself well. 
  • Form positive relationships and avoid toxic ones. 
  • Choose goals that match your authentic values and beliefs.

By focusing on these areas, you can create meaning in your life. Once you have meaningful experience, happiness will ensue.

Happiness and recovery

Getting into recovery and sobriety requires a lot of hard work. That might not leave you feeling happy day-to-day, but it likely will help you create meaning in your life.

Oftentimes, through therapy, Thompson and his team realize that clients who say that are happy can’t actually pinpoint what that means.

“It’s interesting than some clients tell us they are ‘happy,’” Thompson says. “However, when we process this, we typically discover that the client means ‘relieved.’ It’s telling that a client cannot distinguish between the two, almost as if the client has no real idea what happiness is.”

If we expect happiness all the time, particularly in recovery, we’re likely to be disappointed.

“Alexander Batthyany (a key figure in promoting Frankl’s work) says that a person whose goal is happiness is doomed to fail because suffering is natural to being human,” Thompson explains. “There will always be times when a person is not happy.”

Because of that, Thompson recommends skipping the pursuit of happiness.

“Much better to focus on living a personally meaningful life,” he says.

Sunshine Coast Health Centre is a non 12-step drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in British Columbia. Learn more here.

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