Is Happiness Your Goal?

Several of my clients have told me they want to help people be happy. They measure—well, they attempt to—each individual’s happiness.

I have not found measuring happiness all that helpful. For me, happiness is an outcome, a result, of satisfaction. Satisfaction with my choices, satisfaction in finishing, satisfaction with my results.

I wonder about happiness as a goal.

I do want a happy life. I work to attain that happiness through my work and personal choices. For me, happiness is an oblique goal, not a direct goal.

Oblique vs Direct Goals

John Anderson in Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly, wrote (I’m paraphrasing) that we don’t achieve happiness by pursuing it. We achieve happiness by accomplishing something. That’s my satisfaction thinking.

If I can achieve flow (as in Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience), I feel even better about my work.

If you have a goal to run a marathon, you don’t run 26 miles the first day you decide to run a marathon. You build up to it. You have many small goals in service of that large goal. That building up might consist of changing how you eat, when you run and for how long, and maybe even strength training.

Each of those is a small, oblique goal. You might not feel good—happy—as you work through these goals. Taken together, they help you achieve your greater goal. That’s what makes you happy.

Levels of Happiness

Anderson goes on to discuss three possible levels of happiness:

  • Momentary feelings that make us happy. When I’m sailing, or watching a sunset, or even reading a great book, I experience these kinds of happy feelings.
  • State of mind that persists longer. That’s where we might feel satisfaction and well-being. That’s the building up of small goals to achieve a marathon.
  • Quality of life, not just ideas but how I live them, that keep me going. What makes a life well-lived for you?

If we measure the momentary feelings, we shortchange ourselves. I work out every day. I don’t necessarily feel happy during my workout (momentary feeling). But, I create a state of mind that propels me forward to the next day (the state of mind). I combine that state of mind with my life goals (such as writing more books!) and I am happy with the quality of my life.

It would be the same idea with the marathon example. You might have many uncomfortable feelings when accomplishing all those small goals. However, you can see that your actions can change your state of mind and create a better quality of life.

I choose my actions to maximize my state of mind and quality of life. (I wrote about some of this in Does This Enhance My Life?)

Consider Your Goals

I don’t know what goals you have for your life. I’ve talked about my values of learning and growing and accomplishing more. I work on that third level of happiness, creating a great quality of life, first. I use the state of mind as accomplishment and satisfaction to push me through that first level. I often don’t feel happy in the first small step towards a larger goal. And, I love the small moments of reading, sailing, watching the sunset, to get me through my days.

I’ve been suggesting to my clients that creating an environment that they create and share that big goal, quality of life/work/purpose. Then, they can extend autonomy to the people they serve so the people can discover their state of mind and momentary goals and feelings of happiness.

I don’t know what’s right for you. I only know what’s right for me. Happiness is not my first goal. Satisfaction and living a good life are my goals.

That’s the question this week: Is happiness your goal?

2 thoughts on “Is Happiness Your Goal?”

  1. I optimize for interesting rather than happy.

    I’m not a goal person. Rather, I try to imagine some life conditions or outcomes I would like to have, and then do things that could move me in those directions. And then I try to enjoy the things I do.

    From time to time I reevaluate whether I still want those conditions are outcomes. Almost every time I do, I find myself shifting those things a little. Sometimes I even find myself changing them outright. It’s largely because enjoying the things I was doing along the way to those older conditions and outcomes has introduced me to things I didn’t know existed before. Also, the circumstances of my life change with time and sometimes that changes what I can or must go after.

    Along the way I’ve done some interesting things, things I’m happy I got to do, things I’m proud of. I wrote about this earlier this year:

    1. Jim, that’s a great post. Thank you for the pointer. I like the optimization for interesting, too. I think I optimize for learning. Not the same as you, but close.

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