The “pursuit of happiness” is famously enshrined in the United States Declaration of Independence. Not that anybody was waiting for Thomas Jefferson’s permission to seek happiness for themselves. We all naturally want to do it. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
As long as it’s the right kind of happiness. Otherwise it’s just a distraction.
See, somewhere along the way (or maybe it’s always been like this), it appears we human beings confused the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of self. As a result, we think we’ll be happiest if we focus on ourselves, spend our resources on ourselves, and meet our own needs and desires—sometimes even at the expense of others. We see this all around us.
All you have to do is watch young children playing and observe how they monopolize their favorite toys, and you’ll know how human it is to be selfish. Nobody has to teach a child not to share.
Now, most of us aren’t absolutely selfish in our pursuit of happiness. We include our loved ones. Maybe a few other people too. But it’s a pretty small list, with Me at the top.
Serving ourselves comes naturally for most of us—it always has. But when we try to satisfy our desire for happiness in the pursuit of self, we fall short of the truest, most-lasting forms of happiness. The pursuit of selfish desires may offer some pleasure in the short run, but in the long term, the happiness is never lasting. Misplaced, the pursuit of happiness can become the distraction that keeps us from more meaningful pursuits.
The pursuit of self and the pursuit of lasting happiness are not the same. In fact, at times, they run completely opposite routes.
At the end of your life, would you be prouder of having spent years working and saving to buy a second home, or in doing what you can to help the poor or suffering in your community? Would you find more pride in having spent most of your spare time with sports shows and video games, or in doing the creative work that you were uniquely suited for?
The best, most direct pathway to lasting happiness and fulfillment is to look not only at your own interests but also to the interests of others.
When we begin living our lives for the sake of others, our lives immediately take on greater value. We no longer live for the benefit of one or a few; we begin living for the benefit of many.
Psychiatrist and philosopher Viktor Frankl said, “Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”
Happiness can’t be pursued. It must ensue.
Have you ever tried to hand-feed a wild bird? If you approach too rapidly or thrust the food toward it, it will fly away, scared of you. But if you’re patient, and appear not to be interested in the bird, it may slowly work its way to you.
Let’s not pursue happiness. Let’s pursue purpose . . . and allow happiness to come to us.
—The Me Monster is an excerpt from my new book, Things That Matter: Overcoming Distraction to Pursue a More Meaningful Life.