The Problem With Conditional Happiness

Stop seeing happiness as a series of if-then promises

Photo: Images Plus

I used to think of my happiness as a series of if-then promises: If I had a partner, then I’d be happy. If I made six figures, then I’d be happy. If I moved to a big city. If I had a packed social life.

It’s an easy, and common, assumption to make — that happiness will come when your circumstances change, when you attain whatever it is you want to attain. And modern life is good at encouraging that assumption. Look at all the “motivational” hashtags on social media — #relationshipgoals, #bodygoals, #vacationgoals.

But what if happiness is an independent factor? What if it’s not something you can find or achieve, despite the world trying to convince you otherwise?

While it’s fine to find inspiration from others, it’s dangerously easy to scroll images of people laughing on vacation or hitting weight-loss milestones or announcing engagements, and think: “This is what I’m not.” We all have desires, and that’s a good thing. But thinking of happiness as something conditional means getting stuck in the pursuit of a target that will always be moving farther and farther away.

I’m a big believer in goals. We set them because we know what happens when we sit around and wait for good things to arrive. But I’ve learned to avoid setting goals related to outcomes. For example, my health goal is to lift weights three to four times a week and walk at least 30 minutes every day. That’s it. The goal is not to look like someone else, or to impress others, or to experience a certain fleeting feeling. Those things are out of my control. The only thing I can control are my actions.

In The Art of Living, the Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh wrote: “There is no way to happiness; happiness is the way.” It’s a simple, but profound lesson: What if happiness is not a goal but a way of life?

It took me a while to understand this philosophy, and even longer to start practicing it. But it has changed the way I view everything. I constantly remind myself that I’m not in a hurry, that I don’t need anything. This doesn’t mean that I can’t have ambition. I do. I want things. But I approach my work and my goals with the knowledge that my life is already good. I have what I need. Everything else is a bonus.

When happiness is the way, all of your actions — the way you walk, eat, talk, and rest — come from a calm and confident place. You’re no longer rushing to get somewhere. You know, deep within yourself, that you’re already there.

Creator of the Stoic Letter (new letter comes out every Friday) | My online course, Wealth Strategies, is now free:

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