Which Way To Happiness?

Individual Counseling Insights From Westlake Village-Based Patricia McTague-Loft

For some people happiness is not really a profound subject. They equate happiness with an emotion, a pleasant feeling you enjoy in the moment. But many serious thinkers and philosophers have given much thought to the subject. It might even seem to be part of the American character — after all, our the Declaration of Independence flat out states that “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is an unalienable right of every human being.

Paradoxically, many philosophers have analyzed that phrase — “the pursuit of Happiness — and come to the conclusion that you can’t attain happiness by pursuing it directly. Rather, they say that happiness is a by-product of other pursuits. If you devote your life to a cause such as helping people rise out of poverty, for example, you discover that your life has meaning and then, in moments of reflection, you experience a deep sense of satisfaction — happiness — that is far different than the joyful but fleeting emotion you feel when you buy a new car.

A pair of rather famous people have recently wrestled with the subject of happiness and come up with some useful insights. Renowned social scientist Arthur Brooks teamed up with Oprah Winfrey to write Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier. A clue to their thinking lies in one of the words in the title: Happier. If you think about that word, it implies a process that makes you happier today than yesterday with the promise of being happier tomorrow than today.

Brooks talked about the book on a recent podcast: Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris. In particular, Brooks zeroed in what he calls the “macronutrients” of happiness. “The happiest people enjoy their lives. They get a lot of satisfaction in their activities and they have a sense of meaning and duty about why they’re alive. These are the protein, carbohydrates and fat of happiness.” These macronutrients are:

Enjoyment. Brooks says that enjoyment is a necessary but not sufficient aspect of being happy. He says that only pursuing pleasure “is a terrible way to live a fulfilling life.” However, it is an indispensable part of happiness. What’s more, simple pleasure can lead to truly enjoyable experiences especially when other people are involved.

Satisfaction. Achieving a goal is a wonderful experience. It combines both an emotional and mental aspect. “Satisfaction is the joy, the reward,” Brooks says, “that you get after you struggle for something. We as humans, we need to struggle, we need to strive, we need to sacrifice, we even need pain in our lives, because that’s actually how you earn something.”  

Meaning. This may be the most important of the macronutrients. Enjoyment and satisfaction without meaning in life is simply not sufficient for happiness. Brooks elaborates on meaning by emphasizing that it has three components — coherence, purpose and significance. It’s probably easiest to understand coherence by thinking about its opposite: chaos. If you’ve had a period in your life when things were falling apart, when it was truly chaotic, then you know that you need a sense of order and coherence as a foundation for day-to-day living. Purpose goes back to the subject of goals — we need to have a direction in life, and that’s something we measure by achieving goals. And we need to have a belief, religious or otherwise, that our lives matter — that they have significance.

It’s important to note that the actual substance of these macronutrients is as individual as they are subjective, and that’s okay. One person may find meaning in a lifetime of research into finding a cure for cancer while another may find meaning in preserving law and order within their community.

Most important, though, is Brooks’ insight that neither enjoyment, nor satisfaction nor even meaning alone is sufficient. All three macronutrients  are required to have a balanced — and happier — life.