Don’t Pursue Happiness, Choose Something More Nuanced

Viktor Frankl once said: It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.

As humans, we tend to pursue outcomes. Yet often what we really desire is experiences that create more nuanced feelings.

For example, a client of mine set a goal to take a trip to Paris this year.  I asked her why Paris, she said, “It will make me happy.”  Paris certainly makes a lot of people happy.  When I asked her what about Paris would make her happy she said, “the beauty of it, the art, the beautiful architecture, the food, the river, the people.  I just want to immerse myself in all that beauty.”

Notice the difference, her real goal is to immerse herself in beauty. Paris is a good place to do that, but she can also experience beauty in her daily life by noticing and bringing beauty into her office, home and hobbies.

One of the more common examples of misplaced pursuits is money. Lots of people say they want to make more money.  But if you ask them why they want to make more money, you get a wide variety of answers. For some people money represents freedom, for others it’s lifestyle, or security.  It’s the emotions attached to the money that people are actually craving.

Consultant and executive coach Libby Wagner says, “There are an infinite number of ways we can experience the kinds of things we want to feel.  But it’s not a common way to think about goals.”

In a recent conversation with Wagner, we talked about how often people set goals without considering their true desires.  As executive coaches, Wagner and I

Libby Wagner
Libby Wagner

have both had the experience of working with an executive so caught up in going for the next big thing, that he or she hasn’t paused to think deeply about how they actually want to experience their lives.

Wagner says, “It’s so interesting to have these conversations with people because often they don’t know what they are trying to go for.”

As Frankl observed, trying to pursue happiness rarely results in it.  It’s the unpacking of what happiness means to you that provides the path for a fulfilling life.  Happiness is the result of the emotions and experience that resonate with you, and only you.

Next time you think about your goals, instead of focusing on outcomes like happiness or financial achievement, ask, What emotions do I want to experience in my life?

Do you want more beauty?  Or perhaps it’s freedom and creativity that you crave?  Unpacking your desired emotions might feel strange and even uncomfortable at first.  But it works.  Here’s why.

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If you decide that freedom is what you desire, you’re going to identify more ways to experience it than just more money.  You may decide to give yourself more

unstructured time on weekends. You may put yourself on an aggressive saving plan, instead of merely hoping that hitting your goal will give the desired emotional payoff. Identifying the emotional payoff in advance enables you to figure out multiple paths to achieve it.

In my case, I love being creative.  Getting wild with ideas, playing with materials, and producing something makes me feel alive.  Knowing this helps me prioritize the kind of projects I want to pursue.  It also helps me indulge my crazy furniture-painting hobby without guilt.

You only have one life; think about how you want to experience it and set your goals based on your real emotional desires.