An Unhealthy Pursuit of Happiness

Last week, I was having lunch with a friend and former colleague and we were reminiscing about the “good ole’ days” when we worked together as consultants. Throughout our time together, we brought up so many different experiences that helped to shape who we are in the present. It has been years since we sat together to have a meaningful conversation, so I explained to him my journey which took me from being a full-time consultant/part-time professor to a full-time professor/part-time consultant.

As I told my story, I realized that I was never myself in front of him…until that moment. Whether it was in a team meeting or golf outing with a client, I felt I had to be someone I really wasn’t. The truth is I wasn’t happy with who I was, and I fought this for years despite my constant pursuit.

As you guessed from the title, the subject of this article is about a personal challenge in finding contentment in life which is defined as “the state of peaceful happiness”. This is a state that I only recently identified with at the age of 46. Yes, it has been a long journey. In the process, I hope the article offers insight that will hopefully help you to achieve your own state of peaceful happiness in a shorter amount of time that it took me.

When Will You Be Content?!?!

Why was I not happy with who I was? I am a first-generation college student and truly grateful for all the blessings and opportunities that have been bestowed upon me. Nevertheless, I have spent nearly the past twenty years seeking the elusive state of happiness. Like many of us, I listed goals and achieved them only to sit down to begin another list. I still wasn’t happy despite those recent achievements…only anxious about what I haven’t achieved. Looking back, I realize there was something so foundational missing which I will share with you upon the conclusion of this article.

This pursuit of happiness came in all shapes and sizes, literally. One of my first goals was not professional, but personal. I wanted to lose fifty pounds, nagging weight that accumulated in college and continued post-graduation. It certainly made me physically healthier, but my happiness was short-lived. I wanted something else. Something more. I wanted to be promoted at my firm. I eventually was able to check that box as well. Not happier. And then I wanted to pursue a doctoral degree (NOTE: I was a bit obsessed by this. Not only did I set this as a goal, but I created a plan using Microsoft Project to achieve it). We are told that continuous education leads to growth and opportunity. While true, it doesn’t guarantee happiness.

Fast forward several years later on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln after defending my dissertation in front of my committee members. I recall leaving the academic hall to a level of humidity that early June afternoon that was unmatched. “I made it,” I said to myself. This was the ultimate achievement that was finally going to provide happiness.

Hung up in all my self-praise (and a sport jacket now drenched in perspiration), I remember calling my mother who had always been my “rock” during the difficult times of my life including the loss of my father and spouse during a four-year period of time. Throughout my life, she made sure I always kept an even balance not letting the good or the bad change me as a person. Whether it was winning tennis tournaments or being bullied every day during 7th grade.

I’m not sure what I was expecting to hear on the other end of the call, but let’s just say my euphoria was tempered a bit after we said our “goodbyes”. Of course, she was happy for me and understood the mental and emotional tortures that I had collected during the six-year experience. However, my mother said something towards the end of our call which was so painful but also so correct which sticks with me to this day.

“You are happy for now.” As I hung up the phone, I was disheartened. Walking back to my hotel room with my moist sport jacket and dissertation notes in hand, I reflected on my mother’s words. Leading up to this moment, my mother had said to me at some point during each of my recent visits to my childhood home, “When will you be content?!?!” This was usually after I came through the back door and began a conversation on a recent project I completed, a promotion, or something extrinsically-related. This was my “good life”.

“I made it!” What does that even mean? Why did I work towards a terminal degree? Why was I so interested in being promoted? And why did I really lose the fifty pounds?

Afraid to Stop

There was this burning desire to achieve. It didn’t matter what it was. In fact, after finishing my dissertation, I went through a marathon phase in my life. Did I do this simply for the exercise? I assure you I didn’t. 5Ks, 10Ks, and even half-marathons fall under the “Exercise” category. At the risk of offending the avid running community, I believe people register for marathons because something is missing in their life. I know something was missing from mine. I was running toward happiness…at least I thought.

Phil Knight, founder and chairman of Nike, stated in his recent, and highly recommended, memoir, Shoe Dog that we run because we are afraid to stop. I see his point. I was afraid to stop pursuing things that provided a sense of accomplishment. I figured one of these accomplishments would trigger some form of happiness…eventually. Right?

As I was preparing for another marathon in the spring of 2012, my training and short-lived marathon career came to an abrupt end. I was informed that my mother had suddenly passed away. I kept training thinking this would provide some comfort during this difficult time, but the emotional and physical toll became too much. I recall my last long-distance run when I experienced a sharp pain in my foot. Physically, I was in the best shape of my life. Emotionally, probably the worst. To this day, I believe it was my mother telling me that this pursuit, along with all the others, was also not going to provide me with the happiness I sought for so long.

The Missing Link

Despite all my goals and accomplishments, I never asked myself one fundamental question that we all need to ask ourselves, “What is my true purpose?” My life changed dramatically when I answered the question. It unleashed a passion I never experienced before in my life.

How do we create a state of peaceful happiness? By defining clearly the reason why we were put on this earth. Only then can we set and achieve goals.

Purpose is not something we can simply bypass or leapfrog to get to happiness. Purpose is a required prerequisite. We are required to spend significant time and energy discovering ourselves, our talents, and our passions in order to attain lasting happiness.

purpose-happiness

Author Tom Rath in his excellent book, “Are You Fully Charged?” asks us to abandon our pursuit of happiness despite its inclusion in our Declaration of Independence. I agree with this notion. In fact, we can only pursue happiness once we have identified our meaning in life.

The late Stephen R. Covey brought The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People into the lives of so many. Habit 2, Begin with the End in Mind, challenges us to create our own mission statement as if we were a large corporation. Today, my mission statement (or purpose statement as I refer to it as) has grounded me and allows me to pursue my true calling discovering happiness along the way. My purpose statement has guided me to be a better husband and father while beginning the second half of my professional career as a college professor and coach helping students and individuals in their own pursuit of meaning.

I still don’t like the word “content”. It still conjures up the same feelings of average, mediocre, and status quo. However, it is slowly growing on me. After 25 years as a working professional, I can honestly say I have reached such a state. That is not to say I will not set goals, but the goals I set are now rooted in my purpose creating the peaceful happiness which was elusive for so long.

After reading this article, afford yourself a few quiet moments and ask yourself, “What is my true purpose?” Before you pursue your goals, you must pursue your meaning.