What Makes Us Happy

The pursuit of happiness – a constitutional right – but does this pursuit really bring us more happiness? As I look around it seems to me that those who are chasing happiness are the least happy people… and I think there are some strong evidences for why this is so.

I want to back up a little in time. Let’s look at the past 40 years or so. It is likely that your grandparents didn’t hear their parents telling them:


This mantra, that the average American child has been hearing for the past 2 or 3 generations, is not only a relatively new concept in our culture, it is still an absurd notion in much of the rest of the World. From historical evidence of the past several thousand years, most of human civilization has valued the good of the people over the welfare of the individual. It was understood that the individual needs are served best when everyone pitched in for the group as a whole. But this doesn’t just apply to antiquated political and social situations. It is every bit as relevant today.

The other day I heard an interview with a person who has produced several reality TV shows. She stated that part of the formula for success was to select a cast that was made up of 70% narcissists. Each year there is a rapidly growing percentage of our population that is being diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder. Children who have grown up to believe that they are the nucleus of the family have moved out into the world believing that they are the center of the Universe. So when the Universe doesn’t cooperate with what they want, it is the Universe that is blamed.


Within the field of Psychology there are two sub-fields that have been the focus of thousands of studies: Locus of Control and Defensiveness. The overwhelming evidence from these studies is that the more we base our moods and attitudes on our external circumstances, the more likely we are to suffer from the very things we are most trying to avoid: depression, addiction, joblessness, crime, relational problems, and psychological disorders. In other words, if our emotional state depends on our circumstances, then our circumstances dictate our emotional state, as well as our mental and physical states. Translate this to relationships and you have people who eventually are never satisfied with anyone because everyone will eventually disappoint you. Why? Because they are humans and humans are imperfect.


So, the pursuit of happiness seems to be about attempting to set up circumstances that create a state of perpetual emotional bliss… something that just ain’t going to happen! The person who is in the pursuit of happiness finds a mate. The mate disappoints. The person is unhappy because their circumstances are not what they want. The person blames his/her unhappiness on the mate. The person looks for another mate to make them “happy”. The cycle continues.

There is another way to be. You may have had the privilege of knowing someone who lives according to this other way. (On the other hand, if you run in certain social circles you may never encounter one of these people) You may not know that they live according to a different set of ideas… they just seem to be “happy”. But what you may not realize that it is not their circumstances that are dictating their attitude. They might be out of a job. They might have a spouse that is difficult to live with. They might be suffering from a serious health condition. Yet, they seem to be happy.

This person isn’t waiting for their proverbial ship to come in. They aren’t hinging their hopes on a miracle drug. They aren’t expecting their spouse to fulfill their “needs”. In fact, their personal list of “needs” is probably much shorter than yours and mine: food, water, air, shelter. They probably even have a deep love for their spouse. This person feels complete, not because of their circumstances but because of an identity that is far greater than “self”. They have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. This doesn’t mean they have “settled”. In fact, these people are usually some of the most motivated people you will meet. They accomplish wonderful things, though that is not their ultimate goal. This person has decided that they are going to choose joy instead of pursue happiness.