Happiness Is Not the Goal

May 5, 2011

2 min read


The secret to happiness is to not focus on it.

“Happiness research, a field known as 'positive psychology,' is exploding. Some of the newest evidence suggests that people who focus on living with a sense of purpose as they age are more likely to remain cognitively intact, have better mental health and even live longer than people who focus on achieving feelings of happiness.” (WSJ 03/15/11)

Well duh! Sorry, I know that’s not a scientific response but it always strikes me as funny when significant time, money and effort is spent to discover something we should already know.

A meaningful, productive life does more for you in every way than does a life focus on happiness. Of course, I would venture to say that a meaningful, productive life is actually the secret to happiness. But perhaps the article is defining happiness differently.

Certainly if happiness means the acquisition of material possessions and the indulgence of physical pleasures, it will inevitably disappoint. It is too fleeting and too insubstantial to satisfy. It only leaves you looking for the next and greater thrill.

And if happiness means that life should always be painless and work out as planned, then you will likewise be frustrated. An expectation of a life of comfort will inevitably be thwarted. Accepting that pain is, in fact, a part of life is an essential prerequisite to happiness.

As it says in Ethics of Our Fathers, “Who is rich? The one who is happy with his lot.” Someone who accepts with good grace who he is, his strengths and weaknesses, his position and circumstances, will achieve a happiness unavailable to one who always rails against the unfairness of it all.

There is a difference between happiness and joy. Joy seems to be a unique emotion of excitement reserved for special moments and occasions. Happiness seems to be achievable every day.

I think it’s the pleasure we feel when we’ve lived a full and productive day, when we’ve used each moment to good account. This isn’t as easy as it sounds.

The yetzer hara, the lower part of ourselves, takes many forms in its conspiracy to pull us down. We need to spend time waiting for repairmen and doing errands. We are tired and don’t always feel like making the effort. We have so much on our plates that turns out to be unproductive and unnourishing.

My husband has a friend who gets into bed with the covers over his head every time life hands him a challenge. This seems to be an all-too-common strategy.

“Come to class,” he’ll say. “Come learn Torah. It will take you out of yourself. You will be uplifted as you learn and grow and work on your relationship with the Almighty.”

“Sorry,” he replies. “It’s too much effort. I just need to be alone.”

This is one of the yetzer hara’s most devious strategies. It fools us into thinking that our own best interests are served by staying in bed.

It is actually better for us to go out, to learn to do for others. It seems paradoxical but greater happiness is available when we focus on some outside ourselves.

As the Wall Street Journal article suggests, we don’t do well when we make happiness the goal. But if we invest our time and energy in worthwhile and meaningful efforts, we will surprisingly discover that happiness is the result. Or, perhaps, not so surprisingly…

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