Pleasure, Purpose & the Pursuit of Happiness

Since our inception as a nation, the Pursuit of Happiness has been viewed as an unalienable right of all people. We all have a right to be happy. We all want to be happy. And yet, we’re often at a loss for how to go about cultivating more happiness in our lives.

In his book Happier, Tal Ben-Shahar talks about the shortcomings of two conventional ways of pursuing happiness that we’re all familiar with in the modern era.

The Rat Racer believes that you work hard today and in the future it will all pay off. One day, I’ll be happy. One day… I’ll have enough status, enough money, a big enough win that I will be able to experience happiness. Don’t worry about how miserable the journey is today – stay focused on the future destination where happiness will be waiting for you.

The Hedonist is just the opposite. The hedonist believes life is short and the goal is to cultivate as much pleasure as possible in the present and avoid pain at all costs. The journey is everything because you can’t count on what may happen in the future. Drink up, have fun, live it up for tomorrow we may die!

Unfortunately, Rat Racers often wake up at the end of their lives and say, ‘Is this all there is?’ Where’s all that joy I was expecting to feel?’ And a deep resentment and sadness for all that they missed while they were consumed by the rat race sinks in.  And Hedonists often wake up with a hangover and eventually become numb to worldly pleasures. The meaningless of it all sinks in and they wonder where they will ever find happiness. A fairly common cycle is for a Rat Racer to burn out > then turn to hedonism which ultimately feels meaningfulness > then end up resigned to a perpetual state of unhappiness. Focusing on the future didn’t work. Focusing on the present didn’t work. What gives?

Turns out happiness is not an either/or proposition.

‘I define happiness as the overall experience of pleasure and meaning…. We need to gratify both the will for pleasure and the will for meaning if we are to lead a fulfilling, happy life.’ –Tal Ben-Shahar

Happiness is about finding pleasure in the present and meaning in the future.

It’s about enjoying the journey while believing that you’re working towards a meaningful destination worthy of your efforts.

Have you ever been in a job where your talents and strengths were being fully utilized and yet at a fundamental level you weren’t really satisfied because you were working for a company or in an industry that didn’t provide you with any sense of meaning or Purpose?
Have you ever been in an organization that you deeply believed in but you were miserable because you weren’t in the right position or you had a horrible manager that made your life a living hell?

To find real pleasure in what you do every day, ask yourself these two questions, and then try to increase the amount of time you spend each day doing what you were made to do.

  1. What are my passions? What do I take great pleasure in doing?
  2. What are my strengths? Where do I really shine?

To find what’s truly meaningful to you, ask yourself these two questions, and then reflect on whether your current situation aligns with your answers.

  1. In all that I’ve done, where have I experienced the greatest sense of meaning and Purpose?
  2. What is really important to me? What type of work feels meaningful to me?

If you’re really lucky, you’ll be able to find work that offers you both Pleasure and Purpose.   That’s the ideal.   But the Pursuit of Happiness is a lifetime Pursuit–it’s bigger than your work.   If you pursue joy every day and purpose over a lifetime — it’s a pretty safe bet you’ll have a good and happy life.