The Pursuit of Happiness: Why It’s a Selfish Goal

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – The US Declaration of Independence

Happiness is a controversial subject. The founders of the United States saw enough importance in happiness to declare that the pursuit of Happiness is an unalienable right. The founders, particular Thomas Jefferson, must have thought the pursuit of happiness to be a worthwhile goal. Judging by the amount of blog posts related to depression, happiness, anxiety, etc. I anticipate that what I’m about to say will be somewhat controversial. That’s OK, and I’m not saying you have to agree with everything I’m saying, but I’d like you to read to the end of this post and make the decision for yourself. Is Happiness a worthwhile goal in life?

It is important that you get clear for yourself that your only access to impacting life is action. The world does not care what you intend, how committed you are, how you feel or what you think, and certainly it has no interest in what you want and don’t want. Take a look at life as it is lived and see for yourself that the world only moves for you when you act.  – Werner Erhard

Happiness is very difficult to define. Each person has a slightly different definition. For the purpose of this post, I’m going to assume it is any positive emotion that we experience, although I recognize some may have a few different twists on what true happiness is. However happiness defined, I don’t understand why anyone would want to make it the primary goal of theirs. Here is the reason why:

Happiness is a completely selfish goal – Werner Erhard said in the quote above, the world doesn’t care how you feel or what you think, and it certainly doesn’t care what you want. When you’re on your death bed, YOU likely won’t even care how you felt on this day, so how can we expect happiness to positively change the world for anyone else? I want to make this very clear, because I already know what some of you will say. There are some goals that can lead to happiness that aren’t selfish, however if the goal is happiness itself, without the understanding that you may need to sacrifice it for the greater good, you are selfish.

You see, happiness is often a convenient side effect of selfless goals, but I don’t recommend that it ever be a primary objective of yours. This can sound like I’m splitting hairs, but the mentality is very important. If you offer value to others, you likely will be happy. If you have passion for your career, you’ll likely be happy. If you close your mouth and listen more than you talk, you’ll likely be happy. All of these things potentially will create happiness because they all start with a selfless motive, and might end with you being happy.

I know what you’re thinking. If I make a goal of happiness, can’t being selfless be a method in obtaining happiness? They’re seemingly tied together anyway. Isn’t it just semantics? My answer to this is still no. If I said I have a goal to buy a car so I need to get a job, it is entirely different than saying I need a car so I can get a job. Why are they different? You may be able to avoid buying a car, and still work a job. You might be able to take a bus to work, or carpool, or any other measure to avoid having to own a car to work a job. There’s wiggle room there. You can avoid buying a car and still meet your objective.

If I switched it around and said I need a job so I can buy a car, I may not necessarily need to work in order to get that vehicle. Perhaps I could find a significant other who will buy me a vehicle, or beg my parents to let me use theirs. There are a variety of ways of having a car without working a job. There is wiggle room to avoid having to get a job.

When making a goal, we need to set the goal on what actually matters, and then set the method to get there. methods can change, but the goal should not. What actually matters to you? Is it being happy or creating value for others? Which one are we willing to sacrifice? Personally, if I lived a completely selfless life creating value for those around me, and didn’t feel happy doing it, I’d still prefer that over feeling happy and not creating value for others. Living selflessly trumps happiness every single day of the week. If we have to give up happiness for a greater purpose, we need to do it. If we have to give up a little happiness for a successful marriage, we need to do it. If we need to give up a little happiness for our children to live successful lives, we need to do it. If we need to give up a little happiness to help our friends move into their new house, we need to do it. For those of us who believe in a higher power, if that power asks us to give up a little happiness for something greater, we need to do it.

If happiness is the primary goal, if we need to give up on a greater purpose in order to be happy, we need to do. If we need to give up on a marriage for happiness, we need to do it. If we need to spend less time on making our children successful for our own happiness, we need to do it.  If moving our friends into a new house doesn’t make us happy we need to avoid it.

You see how different these two scenarios are?

Again, I’m not trashing happiness, as I certainly hope we call can find happiness in our lives, but if you’re not intensely happy all the time, it’s ok! The greatest people with the greatest missions are not always the happiest. You still have an intensely important purpose on this earth. In fact, maybe your lack of happiness will drive you into such a great purpose that you will make a such a positive impact that no temporary emotion will ever be able to destroy. If you do not have something that drives you, outside enjoying the moment, I urge you to consider what your mission may be. What is your greater selfless purpose? Make it something that nobody can break! Once you establish that purpose, you’re more likely to leave a lasting ding in the universe much larger than those who simply focus on the pursuit of happiness.

Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to make today a great day filed with purpose!

Robert Krickeberg

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