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  • Louise Oliver

The pursuit of happiness or fulfilment?

If I asked you the question: What makes you happy? And you had to be really specific and succinct in your response: What would you say?

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I am calling the ‘Happiness Economy’. The popular narrative has been that materialism, the acquisition of experiences and achievement are the root of happiness. This popular belief in our culture and the ideal of ‘happily ever after’ has been common parlance for thousands of years. We heard this in fairy tales in childhood and these were embedded into our consciousness.

Today the pursuit of happiness is peddled by brands, celebrities, influencers, and often people in the ‘wellbeing’ industry – intensified by the internet and the profound influence of social media. This has detrimental effects, with the potential for many of us to feel inadequate in the quest to ‘live our best life’ and thrive no matter what. If this year has taught me anything – it is that the constant chase for happiness is counter-intuitive and relentless.

Philosophers and psychologists have long suggested that we have an excessive reliance on the pursuit of happiness which leads us to believe that it is the ultimate rationale for our jobs, relationships, and most of the day-to-day decisions we make. The School of Life suggests that many of us question and avoid situations that do not immediately provide the promise of happiness as a result of this fixation. Encouraging us to swap the word happy for the ancient Greek word Eudaimonia which is best translated as fulfillment.

The philosophy of Eudaimonia is elaborated upon by the School of Life as follows “What distinguishes happiness from fulfillment is pain. It is eminently possible to be fulfilled and – at the same time – under pressure, suffering physically or mentally, overburdened, and quite frequently, in a tetchy mood. This is a psychological nuance that the word happiness makes it hard to capture; for it is tricky to speak of being happy yet unhappy or happy yet suffering. However, such a combination is readily accommodated within the dignified and noble-sounding letters of Eudaimonia.”

So let’s pause for a moment on the focus on happiness and think more about fulfillment. First by exploring what it means to be in good mental health or a state of wellbeing. Mental defines being in good mental health as when you can: Make the most of your potential, cope with life and play a full part in your family, workplace, community, and among friends. Now, this has been a tall order for a lot of us in the midst of a pandemic, when a lot of these things have been challenged and are under threat in some way. I know if I speak for myself, what I have craved most is a sense of purpose, connection, community, and most of all peace of mind. As I explored in my last post about the pandemic all these aspects of wellbeing are interlinked and have a relationship with each other.

I recently caught up with Oliver Burkeman’s final signoff in his much followed health and wellbeing column in The Guardian (somewhat irreverently named ‘This Column will change your life’) where he reflected on a decade of giving life-changing advice. The thing that stood out to me was his revelation based on Jungian theory and the helpful reframe of the question of “Will this make me happy?” in relation to important life decisions. He offers the alternative question of “Will this decision expand or diminish me?” The former question can lead to a strong desire for control and predictable outcomes of how we want life to go our way. Whereas the expansion question is daunting and uncomfortable but will potentially yield greater and often unexpected results.

In our culture of instant gratification, we can easily be seduced by the idea of something that will give us that quick fix. So it's not surprising how frequently we ask ourselves or unconsciously try to answer that age old question 'Will it make me happy?' in the hope of a resounding 'Yes'.

What I know from my personal experience and working as a Coach is that growth is ultimately all about the long game and sustainability. This doesn’t happen in a matter of weeks and certainly isn’t a straight upward trajectory. It ebbs and flows requiring self-compassion, patience, and perseverance. The foundations can be put in place to start the journey towards purpose and fulfillment in a few sessions. This is supported by creating new habits and building resilience that can help us feel a greater sense of wellbeing. For me, this is where the fleeting pursuit of happiness is replaced by the rewarding sense of growth, fulfillment and making progress. For sure there will be joyful moments along the way and you might find them in places where you least expect them.

Questions I am asking myself instead of will this make me happy/am I happy?:

  • Will this expand or diminish me?

  • Are there opportunities for me to grow?

  • What could I do to bring happiness to someone else?

  • What can I do to boost my wellbeing today/this week?

  • What are the pursuits that I find most fulfilling?

  • What moments have brought me joy?

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