We all want to be happy. It’s something we’ve learned to strive for and likely the primary motivator for trying to land that perfect job, find your soul mate, start a family, get that promotion or buy that dream home. The idea of happiness has been embedded in American culture since the Declaration of Independence declared the “pursuit of happiness” as one of the unalienable rights of man. But what is happiness exactly? And how do we get it? And why is it always the pursuit of happiness we focus on instead of the feeling of happiness itself? Surely, if happiness is always a pursuit then it is something we will never actually attain.
In his article “The Medium Chill,” David Roberts suggests that it is this pursuit of happiness that drives our economy. In order for the cycle of spending and debt to work, every consumer needs to believe they would be happier with that new Ipad, that designer outfit, and that bigger home. And, in order to achieve these things, we spend the bulk of our time working long hours and putting up with terrible commutes. As Roberts points out, these hours spent working are too often at the expense of our relationships with family and friends.
Decades of psychological research suggest that strong interpersonal relationships may be more important than material wealth when it comes to feeling happy. While some psychologists debate the exact role that relationships play in predicting happiness, they do agree that feeling socially connected is important. For instance, Diener and Seligman (2002) argue that strong social bonds are as universally necessary for happiness as food is for survival – further illustrating Roberts’ point that it’s counterproductive from a happiness standpoint to sacrifice time with loved ones in order to achieve material success.
So does this mean we should give up our goals of making money and buying nice things in order to spend time with our family? Not completely. Having money often leads to nice holidays, better healthcare, and a better education – all things that are also linked to happiness. The key is to remember that money and material success along with social connectedness are vital for happiness: Money without strong relationships will never make you happy. And strong relationships without enough money to live relatively comfortably will also never make you happy. It’s about not valuing one over the other and striking the right balance between the two.
So instead of thinking of happiness as a “pursuit” or something to strive for, focus instead on strengthening your current relationships. Who knows? You may discover that the goal of happiness is not too far off after all.