During the Melbourne Writers Festival this year I went to see Leo Babauta and Sarah Wilson discuss health and happiness in the digital age. I was there to see Leo, and while Sarah is clearly very intelligent, well read and articulate, her style did not gel with me.
During the audience questions somebody asked a great question, the essence being
are we obsessed with happiness?
Sarah answered that she thought we are, and that it’s basically a futile pursuit. Chasing happiness, she said, was chasing the external and therefore takes us away from our core self, distracting us from our broader purpose. “The reason we’re here,” she said, “is to better ourselves through these challenges, through the ugliness.”
While I could see her point, the answer kind of pissed me off. Is it not possible to seek happiness without it being provided through the external? Can we not seek to be content and maintain a positive outlook despite the ugly challenges that are thrown at us?
Imagine my delight when, as part of my mission to watch a Ted talk each day, the next on the playlist was Shawn Achor’s The Happy Secret to Better Work. This particularly struck me:
…when in reality, if I know everything about your external world, I can only predict 10% of your long-term happiness. 90 percent of your long-term happiness is predicted not by the external world, but by the way your brain processes the world. And if we change it, if we change our formula for happiness and success, we can change the way that we can then affect reality.
In that way, Sarah is right — chasing the external is not going to predict happiness. Leo pointed out the great American dream (which is supposed to make you happy) is based on external, visible achievements: get a good job, meet your partner, settle down and buy a house, start a family, etc., and often once you get there it either doesn’t look like you thought it would (and can therefore leave you feeling disappointed or discontent), or you’re left with a ‘well, now what?’ emptiness.
While I agree that seeking happiness via the external will never truly be fulfilling, I certainly don’t think the pursuit of happiness is futile. We just need to reframe our idea of what will make us happy, because money and stuff isn’t going to cut it anymore.
In her book The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin found that things like strengthening relationships, service to others, and a commitment to learning and challenging herself contributed to her overall level of happiness. This is where we need to look for happiness, and the shift towards experiences over things reflects that we’re starting to understand that.
Perhaps at it’s core the issue is a semantic one; we always talk of happiness when what we’re actually seeking is contentment. The difference is subtle, but useful. In my case, running a business is endlessly challenging and I often feel overwhelmed and confused. But I am so, so sure that this is the right choice for me and, above all of those negative feelings, I always feel deeply content in what I am pursuing.
When we think about seeking happiness, perhaps we’re picturing ourselves running around giddy with glee, but the good stuff isn’t always going to look like that. That doesn’t mean that it’s not worthwhile though, that it’s not the perfect choice.
As Sarah said, sinking deeper into our challenges brings us grace and connects us with our purpose. And that is deeply satisfying. Chase that feeling.