The Misguided Pursuit of Happiness: Decoding America’s Unhappiness Epidemic

10.17.2017

The definition of happiness is a state of well-being and contentment. Type “happiness” into Google and you’ll be offered formulas and secrets to happiness. Type “happiness” into Pinterest and you’ll read motivational quotes: “Happiness is a choice” or “Happiness comes from within.”

The Unhappiness Epidemic

America is obsessed in its pursuit of happiness. Sadly, we just can’t seem to figure out how to achieve it. The U.S. ranked fourteenth in the U.N.’s world happiness rankings. Our country’s happiness score is the lowest it has been since 2006. Americans are more depressed and anxious than ever before.

While there are many variables affecting the happiness of Americans—including the economy, political climate, personal circumstances, and social discourse—the fact remains that Americans all across the board are unhappy. But what’s more problematic is happiness is so elusive; therefore, the pursuit remains futile.

Happiness is Fleeting

If happiness is defined as a state of well-being and contentment, what is well-being? Well-being is defined as the state of being happy and healthy. They’re fairly synonymous, but happiness is just a state of well-being. Well-being is the state of being happy (and healthy)—a more long-term antidote. Happiness is fleeting.

Finding Meaning

In a recent TED Talk, author and journalist Emily Esfahani Smith argues that our entire pursuit of happiness is misguided—that there’s more to life than being happy. She questions why our society is so focused on happiness—something so short lived—when it continually leaves us feeling empty and anxious?     

Smith’s research found that chasing happiness is negatively affecting our well-being and making us unhappy. And what actually predicts this despair is a lack of meaning in life. Smith references psychologist Martin Seligman—known as the founder of Positive Psychology—to explain that meaning comes from belonging to and serving something beyond yourself, and from developing the best within you. 

Because meaning is deeper than happiness, Smith believes that seeking meaning is a more fulfilling long-term path than pursuing happiness. Her research shows that people who have meaning in their life are more resilient, do better in school and work, and live longer. They’re also happier, having fewer negative moods.

The concept and research is compelling. For Americans who have long-pursued the quest for happiness, the insight could be impactful. Smith focuses on four pillars of a meaningful life. To find meaning, some people lean on certain pillars more than others. 

Four Pillars of a Meaningful Life

  • Belonging: Relationships where you are valued for who you are intrinsically; the bonds to family and friends.
  • Purpose: The “why” that drives you forward; more about what you give than what you want.
  • Transcendence: Where your sense of self fades away and you feel connected to something bigger.
  • Storytelling: The narrative you create about yourself from the events of your life; people leading meaningful lives tend to tell the story of their life defined by redemption, growth, and love.

Smith ends her TED Talk with the conclusion: “Happiness comes and goes. But when life is really good, and when things are really bad, having meaning gives us something to hold on to.” When working toward mental, emotional, and physical well-being, living more meaningfully can only be beneficial in fulfilling the happiness piece of the well-being puzzle.

Interested in learning which pillar provides your primary source of meaning in life? Take Smith’s quiz here.

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