We are constantly reminded of the benefits of being happy: Happy people are more successful, have better sex, have more friends, have better bodies—the list goes on. While evidence supports the overall benefits of happiness, research shows that the more we think about happiness and how to pursue it, the less likely we are to find it.
For one, being told how important it is to be happy can lead to feelings of disappointment. Constant analysis of how happy you are undermines the ability to actually experience it. Ordinary moments that don’t deliver extraordinary joy feel like a failure. Another downside of relentlessly pursuing happiness is that it makes people lonely. An emphasis on the individual and on personal gain damages our connections with others. As author Parker Palmer once pointed out, “No one ever died saying, ‘I’m sure glad for the self-centered, self-serving, and self-protective life I’ve lived.’”
It’s when we contribute to the world and are of service to others that we discover something far more important than moment-to-moment happiness: a sense of meaning and purpose. Today, social pressure to feel happy (and broadcast it on social media) is intense. I have met patients concerned something is wrong with them because they are not happy most or all of the time. What I tell them is to focus less on the pursuit of happiness and more on the pursuit of goodness. Everything else will fall into place. Eleanor Roosevelt said it best: “Happiness is not a goal, it is a by-product.”
Dr. Samantha Boardman is a clinical instructor in psychiatry and an assistant attending psychiatrist at Weil Cornell Medical College in New York and the the founder of positiveprescription.com. (opens in new tab)
This story originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Marie Claire.
subscribe here (opens in new tab)
MORE FROM SAMANTHA BOARDMAN
Simone Biles Is Out of the Team Final at the Tokyo Olympics
She withdrew from the event due to a medical issue, according to USA Gymnastics.
By Rachel Epstein
Raven Saunders Is Getting Another Shot at Life—and the Gold
The Olympic shot putter almost didn't live to see the Tokyo Games. Now, she's gearing up to compete while advocating for mental health in the sports world and beyond.
By Rachel Epstein
Download These Self-Care Apps When Everything Sucks
It's okay not to feel okay all the time.
By Rachel Epstein
Transitioning in the Age of Zoom
Revealing changes in your gender presentation can be complicated when you haven’t seen family or coworkers in person in months.
By Lauren Rowello
Centuries of Racism Have Created a Mental Health Crisis Among Black Americans
Marah Lidey, cofounder and co-CEO of wellness app Shine, shares how years of racism has significantly impacted the collective mental health of Black Americans—and how her own experiences inspired her to help others.
By Marah Lidey
What If Fertility Didn't Have a Shelf Life?
Nicole Shanahan and Sergey Brin’s struggle to start a family launched a new era in scientific research. The goal: End menopause.
By Bonnie Rochman
Hopeful, Proud, Tired: How Frontline Workers Feel Fighting the COVID-19 Crisis
A photographer shot and interviewed 17 New York City healthcare heroes working tirelessly to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
By Benedict Evans
How to Conduct Healthy Conversations Around Climate Change
Our resident psychiatrist weighs in on conversing thoughtfully with climate-change skeptics.
By Samantha Boardman