The benefits of chasing purpose over happiness
EDITOR’S NOTE: ‘Mental Fitness: The next frontier in workplace mental health’ is a monthly series, in partnership with Dr. Bill Howatt of Howatt HR Consulting in Ottawa. This series takes a deeper look at mental fitness — an approach to prevent mental harm and promote mental health.
“One way to live with more pleasant emotions, joy, and happiness is to stop chasing feelings and start chasing purpose.” – Dr. Bill Howatt
Most people want to be happy. Consider for a moment: would you prefer to spend most of your time feeling happy or sad? For most, the answer is obvious: to be happy. Now another question that may be a bit harder to answer: “What must happen for you to experience more happiness?”
This simple question is difficult for many to answer as they do not know what makes them happy, only what makes them unhappy. For example, jobs, relationships, and financial situations are all stressors. Life is filled with stress, and most face some adversity every day.
The challenge with chasing happiness by engaging in feel-good activities such as trips, toys, and feel-good behaviours like drinking is that the feelings that come with these activities are temporary. Many people are not wired to feel joy and happiness all the time. That is not how our emotional system has been designed.
Happiness is no different than any other emotion; it is transient. It comes and goes depending on what we are doing. Pursuing happiness, resulting in emotional strain because of faulty expectations, may bring despair.
Struggling to find happiness, resulting in negative internal dialogue and limiting beliefs, can create a sense of failure. Such a mental fitness drain can strain a person’s mental well-being to the point they risk developing anxiety and depression.
Flip the happiness equation from chasing feelings to focusing on purpose
One way to live with more pleasant emotions, joy, and happiness is to stop chasing feelings and start chasing purpose. When you discover that emotions are a by-product of what you are experiencing, they do not define what you think and feel. Emotions are nothing more than neurochemicals, equivalent to a gas gauge. They provide information about what is happening, but they do not define what you can do or how to react.
- Define your values — Ask yourself, “What are my standards for living my life?” Write out your answer and post it on your desk. Your answer refers to your core principles that determine how you make decisions. Passions are created through discovering and learning; values are discovered by deciding who you want to be. For example, I challenge my patients in a clinical setting to tell me the most important thing to them about being a human being. I want to know if they put themselves first. Making your physical and mental health important is key to creating good mental health. This requires making decisions based on what you believe is important and living by your values.
- Live with a defined purpose — What do you want to move toward as a human being? When you make decisions based on your values, you will discover your passions and move towards what gives you purpose. You create more pleasant emotions when you move toward what gives you a sense of purpose and meaning. When you are aligned to and moving towards purpose, you are more likely to find an inner calm and the energy to move through unpleasant emotions, even when having a hard day and dealing with setbacks and failure. Unpleasant emotions are part of being human. Nowhere does it say life is supposed to be filled with happiness 24-7. However, you can fill your life 24-7 with purpose that fuels your reason for what you do each day. This clarifies your significance and what you believe is worthy of your time and focus. You are the only person who can define your purpose. However, the people you surround yourself with can support and encourage you to achieve your purpose and live by your core values.
If you struggle to define your value or purpose, work with someone who can help you. I have worked with many clients in therapy, coaching, and workshops where the goal was to pause and focus on who they want to become, not on what they are feeling. Emotions are a by-product of what you experience. The wonderful by-product of living your life based on your values and moving towards your purpose is spending more time feeling fulfilled, peaceful, joyful, and happy. Focus on your journey and accept that life will have bumps and hard times. Focus and attention to values and moving towards purpose promote mental (behavioural) health.
Dr. Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR Consulting.