End the Pursuit. Instead, Practice
How Investments in Purpose, Relationships, and Gratitude can Make You Happier
The pursuit of happiness is one of our most cherished rights. The American Declaration of Independence confirms that it is “unalienable,” meaning it can’t be taken away or transferred to another. While that’s certainly good news, I struggle with the word pursuit in the famous phrase.
Pursuit seems like work, as in I’m in pursuit of my dog that got out my yard and is now wreaking havoc in the neighborhood or I’m in pursuit of a big deal. Since I live in Los Angeles where police pursuits are featured on the evening news on a regular basis, elements of risk and danger also come to mind. In other words, I sometimes wish the Founding Fathers had left out pursuit and just bestowed happiness upon everyone.
It may be the pursuit piece that’s tripping up so many people. According to 2020 research conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, people are more unhappy than ever. Specifically, only 14 percent of those surveyed said that they were “very happy,” and 23 percent declared themselves “not happy.” More Americans report feeling depressed on occasion (38 percent) than at any time in history and their future outlook is somewhat dim as well. Only 42 percent of respondents thought that their children’s standard of living would be better than their own—that’s down from 57 percent when the same survey was taken in 2018.
It’s certainly tempting to blame all of this unhappiness and pessimism on the pandemic, but before we go there, let’s first be clear on the real meaning of pursuit. In a 1964 article published in the William and Mary Quarterly, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. provides a useful point of clarification. Schlesinger argued that the meaning of “pursuit” in the context of the times is best understood as to practice or live out, instead of chase. It makes sense when you consider how silly it would be for your physician to chase medicine.
This new understanding provides a bit of relief. We don’t have to chase something that is elusive, we simply live happily. But how? The following points may help you become a better practitioner of happiness:
Happiness doesn’t mean problem-free, pain-free, and always pleasant.
Only the pathologically psychotic never feel normal negative feelings in response to bad things going on around them. In reality, life is filled with difficulty and pain. We’ve experienced plenty of it in 2020. In fact, the ability to confront the harsh realities of life may be a key to our very survival.
The Stockdale Paradox reflects the experience of Vice Admiral James Stockdale during his captivity as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He explains that those who survived the brutality of their captivity were not the optimists; they were the realists who lived one-day-at-time. While Stockdale never lost faith in America and how he would prevail in the end, he found it more beneficial to deal with the harsh reality of his situation than count on some magical solution to his problems. Facing the facts and responding accordingly would seem to be good advice for us as well—one-foot-in-front-of-the-other style.
More money doesn’t mean more happiness.
There is evidence to suggest that having an adequate income to cover basic needs is important to emotional well-being, but there is a point of satiation (It’s about $60,000- $95,000 per year, but it varies by region). There is also research that supports the notion that once basic needs are met, happiness stagnates.
I witnessed this phenomenon firsthand in the lives of the people living and working at children’s home in Mexico I visited many times. During each visit, I couldn’t help but notice the children’s joy and laughter. In material terms, they had the clothes that they were wearing and little else, but they were happy. The adults who served at the home also had little—and they spent everything that came in on the kids’ care. But despite all the challenges they faced, they seemed genuinely happy in the work they had been called to do.
Purpose is the path to happiness.
My friends in Mexico make the case that doing meaningful work to fulfill a purpose greater than oneself is a critical component of a happy life. A review of the scholarly literature supports this premise and explains that people working with a sense of purpose are more engaged, productive, and committed.
People with purpose place themselves in the service of something bigger. It’s the cause that drives them to continue in the face of adversity and somehow enjoy the journey. History offers a number of examples of purpose-driven heroes like Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr, yet purpose does not equate to fame. During the pandemic, we’ve seen many wonderful of examples of people placing service to others above their own needs.
Many find a sense of purpose through the lens of faith. Pastor Rick Warren’s global best-seller, Purpose Driven Life, focuses on God as the ultimate purpose in life and how serving Him brings meaning and fullness. It’s when we try to find fulfillment within ourselves—absent of a relationship with our creator--that leads to emptiness and despair.
Healthy relationships make us happy.
Humans are the ultimate social creatures. We all recognized this when our ability to be with friends, family, and or even strangers in social settings was taken away from us during the lockdowns. As a result, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saw a rise the number of people experiencing depression and anxiety.
On a positive note, there is data that suggests that positive relationships—both romantic and platonic—promote happiness and good health. Investing in relationships, then, provides an impressive return. With this in mind, a good question to ask yourself on a daily basis is: What deposits have I made today into my relational accounts? And if you’re overdrawn with some people, make things right.
Gratitude fuels happiness.
Often studied in the context of positive psychology, there is clear and consistent correlation between gratitude and happiness. Martin Seligman, a leader researcher in the field from the University of Pennsylvania, found that people who wrote and delivered letters of thanks to key people in their lives saw an almost immediate jump in happiness scores.
There is a business case for gratitude as well. A Wharton Business School study found that to fund-raisers soliciting donations for the university who had received a simple “thank you” from their manager outperformed colleagues who received no expressions of gratitude. Incredibly, those two words turn out to be one of the best managerial strategies going—and it’s absolutely free.
It’s our right to be happy. Unfortunately, I fear that many people are still looking for happiness in the wrong places and then disappointed when they don’t find it. My hope is that you will stop your pursuit and begin practicing.
Dr. Mike Patterson is an author, speaker, and master facilitator who helps leaders and teams communicate, collaborate, and manage conflict more effectively. He is the co-author of the highly acclaimed book, Have a Nice Conflict: How to Find Success and Satisfaction in the Most Unlikely Places, and he teaches in the doctoral programs at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology and California Baptist University.
© 2021 Michael L. Patterson, Ed.D.