Why It’s So Hard to Be Happy

March 19, 2007  

Have you noticed more and more literature supporting the goal-free concept? I have. And nearly every day, someone writes to tell me about an article they read that touts the benefits of “not focusing on your goals.”

One such article entitled,”Why It’s So Hard to Be Happy” by Michael Wiederman, appeared in the Feb/Mar 2007 issue of “Scientific American Mind.”

In the article, Wiederman discusses 5 tips for being happier. Numbers 1 and 5 may seem familiar:

#1 – Do Not Focus on Goals. …you must be vigilant against that internal voice that whispers, “But I would be a bit happier if only…” (He goes on to explain why achieving a goal does not necessarily bring happiness. I am reminded of my goal-free statistics: 58% of people admit to willingly sacrificing their happiness today in the belief that when they achieve their goals they will be happier. Unfortunately, 41% of Americans say that achieving their goals has not made them happier and has only left them disillusioned.)

#5 – Practice Living in the Moment. Start small by focusing on your sensory experience while engaging in a routine task. Over time, spend less energy thinking about the past or the future. (Being present is key to being goal-free)

The other 3? #2 – Make Time to Volunteer, #3 – Practice Moderation, #4 – Strive for Contentment

There is also a section in the article labeled: “Goals + Achievement = Happiness?” The question mark at the end is critical. As you might suspect, the equation is not true. Wiederman provides more evidence that money can not buy happiness. He quotes one study done by Michael R. Hagerty of the Graduate School of Management at U Cal Davis. Hagerty discovered that “the greater the income disparity within a community, the less its residents were satisfied with their lives.” Wiederman concludes, “When we are aware that others are better off than we are, our own satisfaction suffers.” (This conclusion is supported by other studies from my blog)

The article also cites psychologists Williams D. McIntosh of Georgia Southern University and Leonard L. Martin of the University of Georgia who theorize that “people who repeatedly focus on attaining goals are less likely to be happy.” Wiederman concludes, “Psychologists have found that we humans are good at deceiving ourselves about the future. We tend to believe that our prospects for increased happiness are better than our current circumstances.” Of course, this is not true.

The most interesting study was by Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist at U Cal Riverside, who looked at the correlation between happiness and success. She observed that, “Happy people were not necessarily happier after their success than they were before, but they tended to be happier than others who were less successful.” Her conclusion? “Success is related to happiness – but as a consequence, not a cause, of mood…happy people have other personality traits that facilitate success.”

It’s a good article, so I recommend you buy this issue of Scientific American Mind. Better yet, subscribe to the magazine.

P.S. Michael Wiederman just agreed to do a podcast for goalfree.com. Stay tuned.

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5 Responses to “Why It’s So Hard to Be Happy”

  1. David Zinger on March 23rd, 2007 7:07 pm

    Stephen:

    I appreciate the scientific orientation on happiness. I will check out your recommendation.

    We can be whole without a goal and experience a smile without setting a goal for another mile.

    Great perspective to start the weekend perhaps even better to start a Monday morning.

    Thanks,
    David

  2. Belladonna on April 17th, 2007 12:49 am

    Hi Stephen;

    I’ve nominated you for the Thinking Blogger Award. As I said in my post, I don’t always agree, but I very much enjoy the way your words make me think!

  3. Kare on April 23rd, 2007 11:00 am

    Steve.
    Kudoes!
    Again, a pithy summary of several fascinating studies with news-you-can-use..

    Two complementary books to that research are Marty Seligman’s Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness.”

    An early mentor of mine, Howard Raiffa, was a co-author of Smart Choices (covering common decision making traps) Perhaps his tips will support people on their path towards goal-free living – liberated by a knowledge of how to be more wise in the choices they make.

  4. the lookout on May 27th, 2007 9:28 am

    Re ‘#1 – Do Not Focus on Goals’ this reminded me of the ‘Don’t think of an apple’ experiment:

    ’1. Don’t think of an Apple.
    2. Choose any thought you like, but don’t think of an Apple.
    3. Now hold that “not Apple” thought for a few seconds…
    4. Let me guess, for a brief moment, you actually thought of an Apple! :)’
    (from http://www.evenhappier.com/)

    To turn this on its head, the closest antonyms to goal I could find were antonyms to ambitious, which are ‘content, fulfilled & satisfied.’ I know I’d much rather focus on being content, fulfilled and satisfied than on ‘goals’ :)

    Also, if you’re TRYING to be content, fufilled and satisfied, isn’t that an oxymoron?!? i.e. the act of TRYING is negating the contentment you would have felt from easing back a bit?!?

  5. Jen on May 27th, 2007 11:28 am

    Hey cool insight ! We kind of think alike.

    see you later