There's nothing strange about wanting to be happy. "There is no one who does not wish to be happy," the theologian and philosopher Augustine flatly declared in 426 CE, with absolutely no evidence necessary then or now. Find us someone who says, "I don't care about being happy," and we will show you someone either delusional or not telling the truth.

What do people mean when they say they "want to be happy"? Usually, two things: First, they are saying they want to achieve (and keep) certain feelings—joyfulness, cheerfulness, or something similar. Second, they are saying there is some obstacle to getting this feeling. "I want to be happy" is almost always followed by "but..."

Consider Claudia, an office manager in New York. At age 35, she's been living with her boyfriend for the past five years. They love each other, but he is not ready to make a permanent commitment. Claudia doesn't feel that she can plan for the future—where she will live, whether she will have kids, how her career arc will go. This frustrates her and leaves her at loose ends, making her feel sad and angry. She wants to be happy but doesn't think she can be until her boyfriend makes up his mind.

Or consider Ryan. He thought that when he was in college he would make lifelong friends and set his career goals. Instead, he came out of school more confused about life than when he went in. Now, at age 25, he's thousands of dollars in debt, jumps from job to job, and feels aimless. He hopes he will be happy when the right opportunity comes along and makes his future clear.

Margaret is 50. Ten years ago, she thought she had everything figured out—she worked part-time, her kids were in high school, and she was active in her community. But since her children left the nest, she's felt restless and dissatisfied with everything. She browses houses on Zillow, thinking it might be helpful to move. She thinks a big change will bring happiness, but she doesn't know what the necessary change is.

Finally, there's Ted. Since he retired, he hasn't had real friends. He's lost touch with everyone from work. He's been divorced for years, and his adult children are focused on their own families. Sometimes he reads, but he mostly watches television to pass the time. He thinks he would be happy if there were more people in his life, but he can't seem to find them.

Claudia, Ryan, Margaret, and Ted are normal people with normal problems—nothing strange or scandalous. (They're actually composites of people whom we have met and worked with many times.) Each is dealing with the ordinary difficulties that any of us could face in our lives, even without making big missteps or taking foolish risks. And their beliefs about happiness and life are normal—but mistaken.

Claudia, Ryan, Margaret, and Ted all are living in a state of "I want to be happy, but..." If you break that down, you'll see that it's predicated on two beliefs:

1. I can be happy...

2. ...but my circumstances are keeping me stuck in unhappiness.

The truth is that both those beliefs, as persuasive as they sound, are false. You can't be happy—though you can be happier. And your circumstances and your source of unhappiness don't have to stop you.

Here's what we mean when we say you can't be happy. Searching for happiness is like searching for El Dorado, the fabled South American city of gold no one has ever found. When we search for happiness, we may get glimpses of what it might feel like, but it doesn't last. People talk about it, and some claim to possess it, but the people who society says should be completely happy—the rich, the beautiful, the famous, the powerful—often seem to wind up in the news with their bankruptcies, personal scandals, and family troubles. Some people do have more happiness than others, but no one can master it consistently.

If the secret to total happiness existed, we would have all found it by now. It would be big business, sold on the internet, taught in every school, and probably provided by the government. But it isn't. That's kind of weird, isn't it? The one thing we all want, since Homo sapiens appeared 300,000 years ago in Africa, has remained elusive to pretty much everybody. We've figured out how to make fire, the wheel, the lunar lander, and TikTok videos, but with all that human ingenuity, we have not mastered the art and science of getting and keeping the one thing we really want.

That's because happiness is not a destination. Happiness is a direction. We won't find complete happiness on this side of heaven, but no matter where each of us is in life, we can all be happier. And then happier, and then happier still.

The fact that complete happiness in this life is impossible might seem like disappointing news, but it isn't. It's the best news ever, actually. It means we all can finally stop looking for the lost city that doesn't exist, once and for all. We can stop wondering what's wrong with us because we can't find or keep it.

We can also stop believing that our individual problems are the reasons we haven't achieved happiness. No positive circumstance can give us the state of bliss we seek. But no negative circumstance can make getting happier impossible, either. Here is a fact: You can get happier, even if you have problems. You can even get happier in some cases because you have problems.

These two mistaken beliefs, and not what life throws at us, are the real reason so many people are stuck and miserable. They want something that doesn't exist, and they think that any progress is impossible until all the barriers in life are cleared away.

Build the Life You Want From Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier, by Arthur C. Brooks and Oprah Winfrey, published by Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright (c) 2023 by ACB Ideas LLC and Harpo, Inc.


Next Story