Why Pursuing Happiness Could Make You Sad

Like a lot of people I know, I derive a significant amount of my happiness from fitness. A workout or a surf session floods me with endorphins, it reduces my anxiety, it gives me confidence, it makes me feel awake to life’s possibilities.

This works very well when I’m feeling healthy and strong.

On Tuesday, I was not. My back hurt. I had a sore throat. The workout was terrible, and I left the gym feeling weak and discouraged. Deprived of my endorphin hit, my mood darkened as the afternoon progressed. I began to panic about my back, worried it was going to get worse. I kept swallowing, feeling my sore throat and imagining the cold that was going to descend on my sinuses in the next few days.

Then I looked at the calendar and realized it was the second Tuesday of the month. That’s when the kids and I go to a local church and help serve dinner to the hungry.

“Hey, guys, do you want to go to the hunger supper tonight?” I asked, hoping they’d give me an excuse to bow out. I was planning a night of lying on the couch feeling sorry for myself.

“Yes!” they said. (I’m not sure why, but my eight year old son and 11 year old daughter love this monthly community service. They make me a better person.)

Crap. Fine.

I sighed and put on my shoes. I yelled at the kids to get ready and we drove to the church. We greeted the regulars, the amazing people who do this every week, and then we took our stations. It was burger night, so I was in charge of the onions, my son took pickles, my daughter handed out bananas.

The line moves quickly at the hunger supper. There’s not any time to think—it’s an hour of serving others. Some people make eye contact and crack jokes. Some look down, not saying a word. Most people are gracious and grateful.

After everyone had gotten a plate, and people were in line for seconds, a man quietly asked if we knew somewhere he could get a sweatshirt or a jacket. He was cold. A woman came through the food line again, not for seconds, but to thank all of us for volunteering.

“I hope someday I’ll be on the other side of the table with you,” she said.

We finished handing out food, and my son and another third grader helped with the dishes. Soon it was 7pm, and time to head home. As we left, one of the organizers of the weekly supper called out to us.

“Thank you for coming,” she said, “your kids always make me smile.”

As I drove home, I realized my dark mood had lifted. Sure, my back still hurt a little, and I felt more run down than usual, but I’d gained some perspective. For an hour and a half I’d focused on something other than myself. The experience gave me something more permanent than happiness. I’d found meaning.

Meaning Versus Happiness

In his bestselling 1946 book Man’s Search For Meaning, Nazi concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl said the people in the camps who avoided becoming hopeless and committing suicide were those who had meaning, or something to live for.

“A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. His knows the ‘why’ of his existence, and will be able to bear the ‘how,’” Frankl wrote.

In a January 2013 article in The Atlantic called “There’s More To Life Than Being Happy,” Emily Esfahani Smith writes about Frankl and how many Americans pursue happiness over meaning.

She writes about a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, in which psychological scientists questioned nearly 400 Americans about the level of meaning and happiness in their lives. They found while happiness and meaning do overlap, a key difference between the two is happiness relies on a certain amount of selfishness, on things going well. If you pursue happiness without meaning, it’s typically a “relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which all things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” the authors of the study wrote.

Generally, happy people have good physical health, a lack of stress or worry, and enough money to buy what they want or need. While happiness provides immediate joy, it also fades quickly. Meaning, which is derived from helping others and making a sacrifice to benefit the group, is long-lasting. It can weather storms.

Community-based fitness programs offer, for many people, a place to experience the overlap between happiness and meaning. We go to work on ourselves and connect with others, so we’re ready to offer help when needed—and ask for it when necessary.

If you’ve built your life around happiness, I recommend searching out meaning.