Chasing The Dream: The Pursuit of Happiness
Chasing The Dream: The Pursuit of Happiness
Dr. Niall McElwee
Workshop Presentation to #MentalHealth4Millennials
National University of Ireland, Galway, 10.10.2017
“Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions.” – Dalai Lama
There is currently a global movement with people of all cultures and creeds chasing happiness much like one might chase a dragon-fly in the dimming evening light. Anyone that has ever chased a dragon-fly will know they are elusive insects and catching them requires skill, patience, dexterity and a large net. Happiness is big business. In the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, in 1972, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk declared that he cared more about Gross National Happiness (GNH) than Gross National Product (GNP). Can you belive that?
This evening, I want to challenge each of you to rethink your current idea of happiness; to consider it from different perspectives than you might have in the past.
A Few Words on Millennial & Millennial Culture
In our recently published book I made an observation that I feel millennials spend too much time ‘face to screen’ as opposed to ‘face to face’. I think it’s an unhealthy use of time and I’m not convinced it makes millennials ‘happy’ because I believe the emphasis on ‘filtered lives’ is not good. Millennials spend so much of their time swiping, scrolling, searching and seeking happiness on their smart phones and tablets, I fear they are not as well versed in dealing with real life situations aa they might be. The culture of the confessional in this country has been replaced by the culture of the virtual and perhaps the two most widely used phrases employed by millennials are, ‘What’s the wi-fi password’ and ‘Google it.’ Virtual.
I have been intrigued as to what happiness is and I’ve noticed in the research and experiments that there are largely two opposing views;
The first is that everyone has the opportunity to take individual steps to increase their happiness. This is regardless of their ethnic or economic background or life circumstances. But, I wonder is this true? Many years ago, I spent five years in special projects for youth ‘at risk’, young offender centres and prisons researching my Doctorate and I could well challenge this perspective (I will provide an example of a guy called Damian I interviewed in prison being taken out of school by his father as a child to rob houses in the UK). Was he happy? Could he possibly be happy in any long-term sense? How might wider society view his happiness? Would he be rewarded? Happiness is a deeply complex subject matter. Perhaps Damian belongs in a second category.
The second broad understanding is that happiness is largely the result of genetic, social and economic factors that are beyond the control of an individual, and people have very little opportunity to increase their basic level of happiness. This seems, on the surface at least, to be a more pessimistic viewpoint.
Despite the fact the things that seem to make people happy are quite ephemeral, they are crucial for our sense of well-being in things in life. We know this from so many empirical studies from all over the world.
How to Define Happiness
Irish entrepreneur, Gene Browne, has commenced interesting research on happiness looking at it from an entrepreneurial perspective. Browne notes the case of Aristotle, who lived in Greece over 2,300 years ago and who spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to live a happy life. Aristotle believed that is what is needed to find happiness is the enrichment of our lives. By enrichment he means seriously engaging to develop our full and highest potential as human beings. Aristotle saw a clear distinction between happiness and amusement.
According to O’Toole (2005) Aristotle shows us that the reason that we fail to find happiness is that we are looking in the wrong places. People commonly assume that happiness is a transient feeling, the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain, but Aristotle demonstrates that true happiness is, in fact, mental not physical, rational not emotional. That’s an interesting perspective.
The Meaning of Happiness
There is a now a substantial body of research that illustrates the meaning of happiness actually tends to shift and shimmer systematically over one’s life. Furthermore, the meaning of happiness can change on a daily and weekly basis as people shift their priorities.
An example of this is a 17-year longitudinal study that was conducted by two researchers called Fujita & Diener where their findings showed that 24 percent of participants displayed substantive changes in their happiness over time. So, one in four. Is this a lot or a little do you think?
Professor Jennifer Aaker from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, for example, has written voluminously on the theme of happiness and concentrates on the emotional narrative of our lives. This is a lovely way of conceptualizing happiness because her model observes and accepts that the meaning of happiness tends to migrate (at varying extents) moving from excitement to contentment as we grow older.
A Russian research professor based in California called Sonja Lyubomirsky has also engaged in substantial studies over a period of decades. Her thesis is that simple cognitive and behavioral strategies used in people’s daily lives improve happiness evoking the much sought after positive emotionality. Her research subscribes to the notion that there is a two concept model of happiness centred on each individual’s activity choice and response to situations they find themselves in.
Happily (please excuse the pun) the fulfillment of what Maslow back in the 1960s famously termed the ‘basic psychological needs’ is, in fact, a much more accurate predictor of having and enjoying daily positive and negative emotions than is things such as a person’s financial income. Money does not buy happiness.
Cultural Understandings of Happiness
What most interests me in this context is how I have seen different cultures conceiving and constructing happiness in such varying ways.
I think it’s fair to suggest that western culture tends to place emphasis on personal achievement by evaluating happiness through linking happiness to goal pursuits. Eastern cultures, on the other hand, tend to place collective harmony above their perceived individual requirements. This results in not thinking of personal happiness as an ultimate goal.
As a species, we tend to chase happiness, but more and more research and experiments are finding that achieving a state of being “happy” involves first understanding our purpose, or what my colleague in Cannes terms ‘purposehood’.
In fact, a formal review of 225 academic research papers from around the world by Lyubomirsky and her colleagues in 2005 found a great deal of evidence supporting a link between happiness and multiple desirable life outcomes.
Time and happiness are on the same continuum to me. Choose what you do with your time wisely regardless of your age and status in life. Understand the pursuit of happiness must come from within if you wish to achieve and maintain positive mental health. Happiness is the journey – not the destination. We see this over and over in, for example, sport where elite sportsmen and women say they most remember the things they missed, didn’t get right, didn’t win as opposed to individual and collective moments of obvious glory.
Measure your success by the enrichment you bring to others and not just yourself. The daily kindnesses you demonstrate. The legacy you leave to those whom you have encountered. We are all energy. Stardust. We all belong to each other and, ultimately, we are all just walking each other home. Thus, it seems to me that to achieve true long-term happiness for self, we have to actually look to engagement with others and the happiness we bring to them.
Aaker, J; Smith, A. (September 2010). The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways To Use Social Media to Drive Social Change. Jossey-Bass.
Diener, E., & Diener, C. (1996). Most people are happy. Psychological Science, 7, 181–185.
Diener, E., Emmons, R. A., Larsen, R. J., & Griffin, S. (1985). The Satisfaction With Life Scale. Journal of Personality Assessment, 49, 71–75.
Diener, E. and Fujita, F. (1997) Social Comparison and Subjective Well-Being. In: Buunk, B.P. and Gibbons, F.X., Eds., Health, Coping, and Well-Being: Perspectives from Social Comparison Theory, Erlbaum, Mahwah, 329-358.
Eid, M., & Diener, E. (2004). Global judgments of subjective well-being: Situational variability and long-term stability. Social Indicators Research, 65, 245–277.
Headey, B., & Wearing, A. (1992). Understanding happiness: A theory of subjective well-being. Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Longman Cheshire.
Lyubomirsky, Sonja. (2013). The Myths of Happiness. themythsofhappiness.org.
O’Toole, J. (2005): Creating The Good Life, London, Rodale.
 Mental Health For Millennials, (2017). Ed by Noone, P. Book Hub Publishing.
 Browne, G. (in press).
 O’Toole, J. (2005): Creating The Good Life, London, Rodale.
 Diener, E. and Fujita, F. (1997).
 Aaker, J; Smith, A. (September 2010).
 Lyubomirsky, Sonja. (2013).