Brayden Howie, CEO of Action on Poverty shares how Australians can find true happiness on this International Day of Happiness.

Brayden Howie | LinkedIn

Don’t you just love being happy? Do you wish you were happy more often? Wouldn’t it be great if we were happy all the time? Is there actually a secret to happiness?

On this International Day of Happiness, I reflect on over 15 years of experience in the international development sector and share one piece of advice on how to be happy.

Action on Poverty works in developing communities across Africa, Asia, and the Pacific to break the poverty cycle.
Action on Poverty works in developing communities across Africa, Asia, and the Pacific to break the poverty cycle.

Stop seeking happiness.

Of course, this is counter-intuitive and bucks the mainstream trend in an ever-growing mass of self-help literature where we hear a lot about focusing on our own personal happiness, developing a high personal confidence, and looking after number one. But if you are doing this in order to find happiness, it may actually lead to the opposite.

First let’s consider the risks of the intentional pursuit of happiness. There is a growing body of evidence that indicates that highly valuing happiness makes you more likely to have lower well-being and mental health. While experiencing happiness is associated with higher levels of well-being and mental health, wanting to feel happy or highly valuing happiness puts you at higher risk of experiencing decreased well-being. This doesn’t mean we should seek to feel unhappy, but rather, we should value other things outside of our own personal happiness. In essence, to be happy we should not be seeking happiness.

To understand why this may be the case, let’s consider what happiness is. Happiness is simply an emotional state. It is something we feel when good things happen. Being an emotion, it’s subjective – your happiness is different to mine – and it’s fleeting, which can lead to frustration when it is short-lived or not achieved as we had hoped.

Pursuing happiness is often associated with ideas that are unrealistic. Take the idea of positive thinking where an athlete is taught to visualise the accomplishment of their goal. This is useful if you’ve already done the hard work to become elite in your field. However, it becomes unrealistic when, for example, a university student visualises their stellar career ahead of their final exams that they have not sufficiently studied for. That’s called fantasy, and it will surely end in disappointment. Positive thinking alone is no recipe for happiness – in this case you may have better luck finding happiness through hard work.

We also tend to adapt to the things we experience regularly – particularly positive things. The pursuit of happiness can therefore lead to a never-ending cycle of wanting more to achieve the same level of happiness. This is of course unsustainable. Buddhism had this worked out long ago – desire leads to suffering.

Being an emotional state, the pursuit of happiness can also lead to a tendency to ignore or suppress negative emotions, and a focus on the past or future rather than the present moment. We must experience the full range of human emotions – there is a place for sadness. It is unhealthy to dwell on any single emotion for too long, including positive ones.

So, if happiness isn’t found by looking for it, where does it come from?

Happiness is closely associated with a concept that is increasingly being referred to as ‘well-being’. Those who study this idea divide well-being into two broad classifications: ‘hedonic’ versus ‘eudemonic’. It’s probably clear from the terminology that these are old ideas – they originated with the Greek philosophers, Aristotle being a proponent of the latter school. Hedonia refers to what we might call pleasure, or simple happiness – Hedonia feels nice. Eudemonia refers to a full or flourishing life – it entails concepts of moral excellence, duty, and virtue. On this question of happiness, I’m going to align with Aristotle here and suggest it’s the pursuit of the latter that leads to a higher sense of well-being. I’d take that over happiness (almost) any day.

How then do we find this kind of sustained well-being, and dare I say it, happiness?

The World Happiness Report draws on the Gallop World Poll data, which in a recent version provides a measure of well-being. Gallop identifies the five core areas of well-being as:

  • Purpose: you like what you do each day and are motivated to achieve your goals.
  • Social: you have supportive relationships and love in your life.
  • Financial: you are effectively managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security.
  • Community: you like where you live, you feel safe, and you have pride in your community.
  • Physical: you have good health and enough energy to get things done every day.

These areas of life are not exclusive compartments. They interact with the other areas and suffering in one area will affect the others to some degree.

Interestingly the strongest predictor of thriving in the other domains is thriving in the purpose domain. And herein lies the answer to the ‘secret’ to happiness. True purpose, purpose in the Eudemonic sense, is found not by setting and achieving my own hedonistic goals, but by seeking eudemonia for others. Consider that carefully – it is found not by just seeking these things for yourself, but by contributing them to others.

It’s true to say that we are satisfied when we achieve these things for ourselves, but we are truly, deeply happy (eudemonia) when we contribute to these same things in the lives of others. This is the picture of thriving, or living life in all its abundance, that I think we ultimately seek when we consider true happiness.

So, to thrive, why not consider how you can contribute to the happiness of those around you within each of these five domains:

  • Purpose: How might you actively contribute to others to help them like what they do, and to be more motivated to achieve their own goals?
  • Social: How might you provide a supportive relationship and love to someone else?
  • Financial: How might you support someone else to improve their financial security?
  • Community: How might you actively and positively contribute to others loving the place they live, improve the security of your neighbourhood, and contribute to the pride others have in their community?
  • Physical: How might you encourage and motivate others in your life to be healthy and how can you provide positive energy to them?

Perhaps this World Happiness Day we should pause and consider this – am I pursuing happiness? Or am I pursuing purpose?

Why not try an experiment? Dedicate this year as the year you stop thinking about your own happiness and instead work actively and meaningfully to help those around you to thrive. Check back in at the next World Happiness Day and ask yourself – am I happier this year than I was last?