We treat people based upon the pain that they actually experience, and we can actually study people based upon their subjective experience of happiness that they’re experiencing in the world. Part of what I’m hoping to do and part of the reason I wanted to come to talk with you is that what I’d love for us to do is to help the world redefine what happiness actually means. Because I think that there’s a lot of confusion about what happiness actually is.
And if we do come up with a definition that’s aspirational, maybe we can start a movement not only within our schools and in our families but in our companies worldwide. There’s a lot of articles that are coming out right now talking about how having a happy life and having a meaningful life that a meaningful life is so much better than having a happy life in terms of the levels of health you experience in the long run.
I think those studies, while well-meaning, are actually leading us astray. Because I think it’s impossible for us to sustain happiness without meaning. And as soon as we start to try to define happiness in our life without having meaning, all we’re talking about is pleasure. And pleasure is very short-term, right? We could put chocolate bars in front of each of you, and then we’d be done in terms of our happiness.
Somebody’s like, wait, was that an option this morning? I didn’t even know that that would be an option.
CHADE-MENG TAN: It’s Google. It’s always an option.
SHAWN ACHOR: Exactly. Exactly.
You’ve got pleasure at your fingertips, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you automatically have happiness at your fingertips. Because happiness, the way that we are hoping to start you redefine this for the world is to not have happiness be pleasure, because that’s very short-term. And we get addicted to it. We were talking about that this morning. If happiness is just a pleasure, it becomes a trap, right? So if I’m not feeling pleasure right now, well, then I must not be happy.
Then I’m not going to keep working at this, or I’m not going to keep trying, because this is too difficult now. What I’m interested in is how do we redefine happiness to be– I stole this definition from the ancient Greeks– the joy that we feel striving for our potential? And I love this definition.
I was at the Divinity School before getting into studying positive psychology, and I was studying Christian and Buddhist ethics. Because I was interested in how does the beliefs you have about the world change the actions you decide to do within that world. And one of the things that I loved about this definition when I saw it is it changes the way that we pursue happiness.
Because if happiness is just pleasure, we have to keep running after it very quickly, and we know it’s not going to last. But if happiness is joy, joy is something we can feel in the ups and downs of our life. It’s something we can experience even when things are not pleasurable, when you’re working on a very difficult project, when you’re going for a difficult run, or when you’re biking into and it’s a really long bike ride, whatever is it you’re experiencing.
Even childbirth is not a pleasurable experience all the time, but you can actually feel joy in the midst of that. What I want people to do is to recognize and to actually seek out that joy, which I know is one of your pet projects as well.
How do you see joy, but joy that’s connected to growth? Because if happiness is actually disconnected from growth, it turns out we stagnate and our happiness goes away pretty quickly. I love playing video games; I love them. And they’re very high levels of pleasure, and I’m OK at them. But in terms of long-term meaning, there’s not too much for me in my life.
Now for some people, there’s a lot of meaning in video games. But for me, not so much. So if I keep doing it, even though I’m having pleasure that pleasure actually dissipates after a while, because I’m not actually pursuing any of my potential except within that one domain. The thing I love about joy that we experience striving towards our potential is that potential could be anything. It could be as an entrepreneur, as a business leader.
It could be as a lover, as a son, as a daughter, as a human being. And the more than we actually strive towards that potential, that’s where people experience that greater levels of happiness, and it allows us to stop making that disjunct between happiness and success. Because I was out in Indonesia, and I was speaking out at one of the factories there.
And one of the managers came up to me and said, this talk on happiness might work at places like Google or it might work in places in America, but seriously actually our problem in our country is not that people are unhappy at work. Our problem is sometimes people are way too happy.