5 Ways to Think Differently about Pursuing Happiness

When we’re asked what our ultimate life goals are, we often reply, “to be happy.” The pursuit of happiness is enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, after all; it’s as important as life itself! {Although, it would do all Americans some good to realize that by “happiness” our founding fathers did not mean smiley faces and private indulgence.}

Happiness is certainly a worthwhile life goal, especially if by “happiness” we mean the Greek eudaimonia, which Daniel Gilbert, in Stumbling on Happiness, translates as “good spirit … human flourishing … [and] life well lived.”

But can we ask, why pursue happiness? The question itself sounds subversive, even anti-American.

Let me assure you I am emphasizing the verb, not the direct object, in that question.

Though we’re obsessed with pursuing happiness, many experts would tell us that our very pursuit is what sabotages our efforts to find it. It calls to mind the wisdom of Thoreau:


Similarly, in his classic work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes, “It is by being fully involved with every detail of our lives, whether good or bad, that we find happiness, not by trying to look for it directly.”

Happiness is a byproduct of an engaged, connected, and meaningful life. Yet we still pursue happiness as if it were the ultimate goal, as if it existed somehow in a vacuum.

In The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman challenges the conventional wisdom about happiness, as well as the advice of motivational speakers, for they continually persuade us to pursue pathways to happiness that are not borne out by the research.

It’s a fascinating read. Burkeman advocates what he calls the “negative path” to happiness, in that it involves embracing the negative, as well as a more relaxed not-doing. I loved this book so much I want to share with you…


Instead of positive thinking, practice mindful, nonjudgmental awareness of your thoughts.

Motivational speakers tell people to think positively and banish the word “impossible!” There’s no room for negativity if you want to be happy!

In response, Burkeman cites the “white bear paradox”: tell someone that for one minute, they cannot think about a white bear. What do they think about? A white bear, of course!

Tell someone to think only positive thoughts, and what do they think about? All those negative thoughts running through their mind! In fact, putting effort into positive thinking only draws more attention to our negative self-talk, because we are looking for it … and then we get mad at ourselves for not being more positive!

Instead of banishing negative thoughts {which is nigh impossible}, we should bring our mindful awareness to them, examining them with calm indifference. We cannot overcome our negative emotions by simply denying or repressing them – mindfulness teaches us to acknowledge them, but not be driven by them.

Instead of setting audacious goals for success, practice non-attachment to the outcome of your actions.

Have you heard of that famous study of Yale graduates? The one where they asked graduating seniors if they had formulated specific life goals, and then followed up with them two decades later? Supposedly, the 3% of graduates who had set goals out-earned the 97% who did not have goals!

Sounds amazing, right? Almost every motivational speaker and goal guru cites this study as evidence of the effectiveness of goal-setting. The problem? It never happened. It’s an academic research urban legend.

Burkeman mentions that several corporations have abandoned goal-setting, after finding goal-odicy often had unintended consequences, such as diverting resources away from other important work or ignoring {or even covering up} evidence of failure.

Goals can also be limiting. Ever wonder why it’s so hard to get a taxi in New York City when it’s raining? It’s not just supply and demand. Taxi drivers work to meet a quota each day; when they’ve hit their goal, their day is done. On a rainy day, they hit their goal sooner, so most decide to end their shift early, and they’re really ARE fewer cabs on the street! Often, our goals limit our pursuit of maximum happiness {additional income and dry commutes for all}.

But if we ask people to focus on form, on practice, and not on the end result, they actually perform better. If we set an audacious goal for a wonderful family outing to the zoo, complete with a dolphin show and a picnic and perfectly-behaved happy children … we’re likely to be disappointed. We’re likely to miss the many {brief, fleeting} moments of joy if the picnic dissolved into a sh!tstorm of ants and complaining and whining, and it was really hot and sweaty, and we were late for the dolphin show…

Burkeman argues we’re better off if we don’t “strive too ardently for any single vision of the future.”

Instead of seeking stability, dance with uncertainty and even failure.

So much of our pursuit of happiness consists of seeking stability, permanence, and “balance,” when those things don’t really exist. Buddhism, and biology, teach us that we are a constantly shifting collection of cells, thoughts, emotions, breath, sensations, and form. We are impermanent. We are always changing, flowing just like that river we can never step in twice. So why do we pursue something that doesn’t exist? Burkeman advises, “The point is not to ‘confront’ insecurity, but to appreciate that you are it.”

If you fail, embrace it. We need to think like scientists, who learn as much from the experiment that fails as the one that succeeds. Dance with your uncertainty.

And be wary of those books and speeches that identify all the criteria of “successful” people {risk-taking, goal-setting, teeth-brushing, etc.} – those things probably characterize unsuccessful people, too. But researchers usually don’t study them.

Instead of envisioning your completely satisfied self, consider the worst possible scenarios.

This seems to fly in the face of the advice of many popular self-help titles, especially The Secret. People are told to envision themselves holding their ideal job, or completing a novel, or running that marathon. While daydreaming can have positive psychological benefits, researcher Gabrielle Oettingen has found that “spending time and energy thinking about how well things could go … actually reduces most people’s motivation to achieve them.” Visualizing the good outcome produces relaxed and happy thoughts, which, to the brain, feel just like actually having accomplished it!

Burkeman instead recommends envisioning the worst case scenario. This will likely will remind us that 1) we can find a way to cope with the negative outcomes, and 2) most often, things rarely go as wrong as we fear they will. Daniel Gilbert writes, “anticipating unpleasant events can minimize their impact…. [F]ear, worry, and anxiety have useful roles to play in our lives … [and] motivate people to engage in prudent, prophylactic behavior.”

Instead of waiting for inspiration, just do it!

If, as Daniel Gilbert writes, happiness comes through “being effective – changing things, influencing things, making things happen,” and, as Csikszentmihalyi states, it occurs “when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile,” then we need to take action.

Burkeman claims that the problem with much of the self-help literature, and with motivational speakers, is that they’re about “how to feel in the mood for getting things done.” But feeling like doing something, and actually doing it, are two different things. If, instead of waiting for inspiration, we take “a non-attached stance towards procrastination,” we’ll discover that our “reluctance about working isn’t something that needs to be eradicated or transformed into positivity…. [We] can note the procrastinatory feelings and act anyway.”

In This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett asserts that writer’s block doesn’t exist. I heard Anna Quindlen speak last week, and she said the very same thing. It could just be that writers named Ann don’t get stuck, but I think they’re on to something. A lot of the time, we’re not very motivated to act, even to do something we really want to do, like write the great American novel. But Patchett counsels, “the more we are willing to separate from distraction and step into the open arms of boredom, the more writing will get on the page.”

We just have to do it.


If we want to be happy, Burkeman advises we learn to enjoy uncertainty and insecurity, cultivate a calm indifference toward our experiences, practice mindfulness, become familiar with failure, drop our obsession with goal-setting, stop trying to think only of the positive, imagine the worst possible outcomes, take inspired action, and live our lives with a sense of awe. I think the Buddha would wholeheartedly agree.

Sarah Rudell Beach
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Sarah Rudell Beach

Sarah is a writer, teacher, and mother. At Left Brain Buddha, she writes about her journey to live and parent mindfully, joyfully, and thought-fully in her left-brain analytical life. When not working, she enjoys dancing, reading, and hanging out with her little Buddhas.
Sarah Rudell Beach
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  1. says

    I was just having this discussion with my mother yesterday as we discussed my husband’s unhappiness with his new career. After 12 years of chasing happiness, we have finally settled and put down roots yet he cannot get out of the habit of feeling that happiness is just around the next corner. I’m making a commitment in 2014 to stop trying to” strive too ardently for any single vision of the future.” With this new mindset, I’ve had a very happy 2014 so far, but this is definitely a conscious behavior on my part. It is all too easy to feel that we could be happier and actually miss part of the wonderful life we have right in front of us. This is a great post. Thanks for starting of the week with a happy note!
    elizabeth recently posted…This Stay-at-Home Mom’s Peek into a Working Mom’s WorldMy Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Thanks Elizabeth! Yes, I think the point of it is not striving “ardently” – certainly we don’t want to be completely aimless in life, but we also don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking happiness is just out of our grasp, either.

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Thanks – I think in some ways it’s the “fake it til you make it” strategy — sometimes, our actions can precede our emotions about something.

  2. says

    This is a very interesting and new perspective. I struggle with the chase at times only to stop and remind myself that it is already here, with me, right now. I wonder what I can do next to make myself happy but I am happy. I need to find the next thing that I like to do to supplement the happiness that already exists. Is this still chasing happiness or is it simply looking for a new opportunity and I’m just confusing the two? I have yet to figure that one out!
    Sandy Ramsey recently posted…A Split SecondMy Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      I suppose it’s a fine line between seeking ‘more’ and being content with what is… I think as long as we aren’t wedded to one particular vision, we can enjoy the journey as much as the destination.

  3. says

    This is something that I can get into! Did I ever tell you that I took a Positive Psychology class in grad school (mainly out of curiosity but also because it was the only doctoral course that fit into my summer schedule) and it pissed me off so much that I almost quit and/or got thrown out? My hand was constantly up in the class, demanding answers to some of the inconsistencies that I perceived in many of its belief structures. But this, what you’re describing, I can totally get behind!
    Jessica Smock recently posted…In Defense of Calliou (and All Whiny, Clingy Toddlers Everywhere)My Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      I’m torn, as on the one hand I know how much power our thoughts can have in our lives, but I also feel like the positive psychology self-talk can just feel a bit disingenuous at times. I would have loved to have been in that class with you!

  4. says

    DANGGGGGGGG! Thanks for researching and writing this. Lots of thoughts to take away. Not sure about envisioning worst case scenarios, because I tend to get stuck in them, but certainly the letting go and getting on with life is something I need to take on board.

    And might I say, I am always impressed by how well you back up your thoughts, and just how thoroughly you do this thing. It’s quite wonderful :)
    Considerer recently posted…Please hold, your call is important to us…My Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Aw, thanks, Lizzi. I have always been a worst case scenario person — I guess I find it helpful, and I remind myself that 95% of the things we worry about never really end up happening, anyway.

  5. says

    Nicely researched and well presented Sarah! I do think that we can get caught up in our dreams at times. This can often result in the lack of appreciation for that which is around us and even its destruction in the pursuit of more! A friend’s marriage has ended and one of the reasons that lead to this was her husband’s constant pursuit of “greatness”, “opportunities” and just simply “more”…
    Sometimes less is more. Thanks for sharing this.
    Shannon recently posted…Bring back the Tucked in Sweater- A Mother’s take on Pop CultureMy Profile

  6. says

    I really like these ways of thinking, Sarah. The point about envisioning the worst case scenario reminded me of a technique I learned in grad school for working with people with phobias. They can catastrophize and feel like the world will end if they face their fear. By asking them to envision (realistically) what will happen if they face it, they see, as you pointed out, that things won’t be as bad as they imagine, and that they will survive.

    And as someone with no specific goals for her blog, I embracing the non- attachment method. It’s working for me – I’m happy :)
    Dana recently posted…Snow sucks, books don’tMy Profile

  7. says

    I remember you wrote about Burkeman before and I liked what you wrote. I will read him one day. I agree with almost everything you’ve said, and have got a half-written article about why positive thinking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. To be whole we do need to welcome the negative too. I love the idea of not having goals, since I’ve never been much of a goal-setter!
    My experience is that the key is to be aware of both fears (worst case scenarios) and desires, and then to let go of attachments and aversions to both as much as possible. The more I let go in any area of my life, the happier I become. The only research you cite that I’m not convinced by is that which says that if we envision successful outcomes we’re less motivated. The anxiety generated by dreading a bad outcome is (for me anyway) for more demotivating!
    I found your story about the New York taxis very interesting! It does show the limiting affects goals can have.
    Yvonne recently posted…The KnifeMy Profile

  8. says

    I can definitely relate to this. I’ve always felt like an outcast for shunning long term goals. Instead, I like to say, I set a direction; and I can change direction whenever, if I so choose.

    This is my big problem with Oprah, who is always suggesting that everyone can achieve their dreams. I think we’re all better off embracing who we are and where we are, even when we’re embracing some mediocrity. That isn’t mutually exclusive from taking steps to improve ourselves or our condition.

    I guess I can see how envisioning worst case scenarios could leave someone ruminating on bad, and maybe irreversible outcomes, like Considerer suggested, but I’m often motivated more by the thought of the unwanted outcome than the preferred outcome. Like Susan Sarandon said “I’m motivated by the fear of what could happen if I don’t act” (or something very similar).
    Eric Kamander recently posted…Mother’s Day Cruise To A Grand IslandMy Profile

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