What is happiness, and how can we achieve it? The question is a straightforward one, but the answer varies wildly depending on who you ask. While human happiness may be one of philosophy’s most complicated equations, there’s one group of people that may be more driven and obsessed with achieving authentic happiness than any other: American millennials. And in our desire to steer our lives toward a permanently blissful state, we may be making ourselves miserable. For most of us, the problem isn’t rooted in a lack of opportunity or economic limits, but in the way we define what happiness is.
Daily life has come to resemble a complicated maze of what should be a series of simple choices. Should I buy my favorite coffee at the cafe, or should I make some at home to save money? Should I push harder in this moment to be recognized at work, or would it be better to focus on finding a new job instead? Should I plan to renew my lease, or keep my options open for a better apartment? Each choice becomes a high-stakes ethical dilemma when we see happiness as a revolving door of opportunities we could miss and never find our way through again.
Despite our most calculated and agonizing attempts to perfect our personal happiness equation, “no one can feel great 100 percent of the time,” Ruth Whippman, author of America the Anxious: Why Our Search for Happiness Is Driving Us Crazy and How to Find It for Real ($16), told us. “There are difficult moments in any kind of life.” When we experience hardship, rejection, or pain, it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong with the choices we’ve made, or that we should be living differently to feel better.
“People have such high expectations of what happiness should feel like,” Whippman observes. While there might not be anything wrong with wanting to feel as happy as we can, the pressure we feel to find a sweet spot where our career, self-image, home, and family life all converge in a perfect equilibrium of authentic and feel-good might doom us to chasing something that, for the most part, is a fantasy.
While there’s little hope for the dream of living in a permanent state of Instagram-worthy bliss, there is good news: There is a path to experiencing a rich and fantastic life. But spending more time examining our desires and needs on an individual level is, surprisingly, probably not going to help us get there. Research shows that true happiness doesn’t hinge on self-care or personal fulfillment, but rather on embracing community and relationships with others.
“Americans define happiness as activities that focus on the self,” Whippman explains. But when she traveled the country to work on her book, she found more and more evidence that across the board, disconnection from other people in favor of self-actualization doesn’t get anyone any closer to nirvana. In fact, a lack of close relationships can put our health in more danger than even smoking and obesity. Exercise and meditation certainly have their place, but when we use them in the place of healthy social connection, we end up isolated, anxious, and incapable of a healthy perspective. “This is true of extroverts and introverts alike,” Whipmann notes.
So how do we foster relationships that will make us more content? “Have dinner with a friend, and don’t cancel,” was Whipmann’s suggested starting point. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2016, Americans spent an average of 39 minutes per day socializing and communicating with others offline. That’s staggeringly low, and evidence of a culture of isolation. We should be working to try to increase the amount of time we spend nurturing off-screen relationships each day. The practice of simply connecting with another person can increase our capacity to be grateful, give us purpose, and make us feel loved, all of which are ingredients for a healthier perspective.
And since happiness, however we choose to define it, can turn into a moving target, the best way to be happy is to stop focusing so much on achieving a certain status or reaching a particular career destination. When we evaluate our lives less on a sliding scale of comparison to what we perceive as other people’s happiness, we’re much more likely to feel good about the moment we’re in. That means less social media, less cultivation of our personal online “brand,” and fewer moments spent obsessing over how our lives look to everybody else.
This doesn’t mean we should completely discard our quest for self-actualization, but that we should contextualize our own happiness as something that can only exist in communion with other people. Put this way, it’s less of a surprise to realize that when we live our lives in a way that’s not totally about our own happiness, we actually feel more content.
What’s your take on pursuing true happiness? Fill us in @BritandCo!
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