I have nothing against being happy, comfortable or content. But when I think about it a little more deeply—in the long-term sense of where to put my energies—the pursuit of happiness is a slippery idea, it relies on naming things and circumstances that should bring that happiness, but would involve an opportunity cost: you'd have to give up other things that are also just as valuable.
Here’s the problem with Happiness
My first issue with the premise is that Happiness tend to be a moving target. Like climbing up a ladder, only once up at a good height, I scan across to see a couple of other great ladders that I did not scale but maybe would have wanted to instead, or also. The grass is greener elsewhere. Is this indecision? A commitment problem? Am I a victim of too many choices?
“Just pick something and just run with it and learn to be happy with the outcome”.
But people grow. For me,"what makes me happy" is going to change in proportion to the new ideas and conversations I pick up along the way on my life's journey. I expect it when I meet interesting people, do interesting things, and learn to ask better questions today than I did last week or last year. The things that make me happy today should be different from what made me happy as a 20-year old. And they should be just as obsolete when I am 60. So nailing down a path today that “will bring happiness” by the time I get there doesn’t make much sense.
I’ve been looking at what hasn’t worked out
The price for pursuing happiness, especially among people who are competitive, has always required sacrifice, focus and commitment, often at the expense of other also very meaningful things in life. The harder you go, the more you get—and the more compromises you have to make between who you were when you started, and what you’ve become in the process of hunting “happiness.” You almost have to be far enough along in the journey before you can fully appreciate that and see the need to recalibrate for something better.
What I’ve decided to do instead
For me, when the goal of Happiness stopped making sense, it stopped being my ladder to climb or wheel to run. The realization—the pivot—was not a change in destination, but a change in the way I saw the road ahead, and how I’d better manage to go about living it.
I started negotiating, in real time, the balance between work, relationships, health and other interests. Instead of pursuing happiness—a future reward for work—I started managing things right now, right in front of me. What difference would an extra hour working on a project tonight make? How urgent is it, really? What does it do for my sleep tonight, my life outside work, and how alert will I be tomorrow because of it?
Instead of pursuing Happiness, I went after Balance. The cumulative effect of this switch immediately produced interesting results. Unlike a pursuit of Happiness, Balance does not measure the distance between gratification now vs future gratification dividends. Balance compels me to bring awareness into the here and now, evaluating my values and ideas as they happen, in the present.
The diagram of my life is entirely different now: the cumulative effect of this change in thinking has been multi-dimensional.
Pursuing Happiness had a pretty standard diagram. Picture a long race course with multiple parallel tracks, one for relationships, one personal life, then work, leisure etc. There are milestones on each track—anniversaries, big projects, client satisfaction, sports achievements, time spent relaxing. I’d always be looking ahead and running forward to the next milestone. The challenge came when I realized that for the most part, I could comfortably only be on any one track at a time. So compromise became inevitable.
Pursuing Balance , however, is a different diagram. I picture a solar system. I am in the center of the system managing the tensions between my work and leisure, home and travel, reading and writing, pixels and paint. It's a 360º view. A pursuit of Balance, in other words, positioned me to be here, now, always. I respond to my life's priorities from one place as one person—not a split personality that has to put himself together every weekend, time permitting.
This change in mindset has been incredibly rewarding but mostly intangible: it requires trust to shift toward ideas and ways you can’t quite name or quantify. In my case, the advantage of not having to switch personalities means being able to have a good "top-level" overview of everything in my life. Suddenly, it becomes possible to confidently prioritize the things on which I can focus—in all areas of my life. I am better able to see how my disparate interests and fields of work—from art and design to business and culture—comfortably inform and nourish each other.
The pursuit of Balance alters how you can see your Life unfolding. It is is no longer a set of linear choices between one area or another, needing to be one persona or another. Everything in your life becomes anchored to a common set of values and standards. Growth is uniform, consistent. And looking forward with this sense of autonomy, you're able to engage your humanity with your best work and present it to the world with brilliant clarity.