Happiness Isn’t a Goal–It’s an Outcome

Book, glasses, coffee cup


In the late summer of 2018, I arrived in San Diego and settled with my husband into a furnished apartment on K Street in the Gaslamp District. After living my entire life in Maine, I’d become used to the sight of pine trees and snow and rocky coastlines and blue foothills snuggled up against the Appalachians. I still loved the beach at Pine Point, but summer ended way too soon, and winter lasted way too long. As much as I loved my home state, I was feeling restless and bored at midlife. I wanted to explore. I hungered for new flavors and new experience, and now that the nest was empty, what better time to travel? 

Lucky for me, my husband’s job made an adventure on the west coast possible. Whoo-hoo! California! 

My first morning in San Diego, I took my mug of coffee out to the balcony which overlooked a small park shaded by palm trees. Behind the park, red MTS trolleys rumbled in both directions in front of the giant white scrolls of the convention center where the famous San Diego Comic-Con is held every summer. We’d missed it by a few weeks, but there was still plenty to explore: Padres Stadium and restaurants, the waterfront and hiking Cowles Mountain. Happy hour drinks in a different watering-hole every night if we wanted. As I sipped my coffee that morning, apartment dwellers walked their dogs, big and small. I watched them run and play in the park with such simple joy. I took a deep breath and sighed as the bright sunlight fell on my face and I looked out over the view toward the Coronado Bridge. 

There was no doubt, I thought, delight welling up inside me. I wasn’t in Maine anymore. 

At that moment, a glorious feeling washed over me–a golden lightness in my whole being. A huge smile spread across my face, and I may even have laughed. “Oh wow,” I said to myself. “I feel happy.” 

I’d kind of forgotten what that felt like, and so I acknowledged it and reveled in it for those few moments. I didn’t try to hold onto it. I didn’t panic when the big feeling ebbed away, faded into a more mellow contentment once again. Instead, I grabbed my journal and pen, captured the moment as best I could, pondered the wondrousness of it all, and felt grateful that I could still experience the kind of joy.

What a gift!

So the other day on Twitter, when someone asked if everyone deserves happiness or if it is something you should work for, I gave the question some thought.  After pondering for a few minutes, I decided the original question was a false binary. Chasing happiness, I wrote back (in so many words), is bound to be disappointing. Instead, perhaps find satisfaction in a job well done, loving others and being loved, appreciating the world around you. 

View happiness not as a goal. Not something you work for. Not something you pursue for its own sake. Rather, consider happiness as an outcome, like desert at the end of a satisfying, healthy meal, the whipped cream of emotions after you’ve eaten your whole-grains and veggies and probiotic pickles. Heck yeah, happiness tastes great…but we can’t live on it alone. For a healthy psyche, I think we need more nutrient-dense pursuits.  


Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in her collection of essays on creativity, Big Magic, the following: 

“I don’t believe in telling people, ‘All you need to do is follow your passion, and everything will be fine.’ I think this can be an unhelpful and even cruel suggestion at times…I believe curiosity is the secret. I don’t sit around waiting for passion to strike me. I keep working steadily because I believe it is our privilege as human beings to keep making things as long as we live and because I enjoy making things.”  

Gilbert goes on to say that following one’s curiosity leads to a “rich and splendid life.” Note that in this philosophy, curiosity is active. You don’t just sit there and expect happiness to envelop you like a warm hug out of nowhere every single day of your life. It’s great and wondrous when it happens–like for me on that balcony overlooking K Street–but that kind of happiness is fleeting, at best. However, living a rich life–one full of complexity and pursuit of keen interests–is rewarding. Follow your curiosity, love other people, do things, keep your mind and heart active, and you will be rewarded with contentment and, yes, happiness once in awhile. 

Keep in mind, too, that the pursuit of happiness is bound to be an investment with diminishing returns. Like the first bite of chocolate or sip of coffee in the morning, so with happiness. The dopamine rush becomes harder and harder to capture with each hit. And what if you pursue happiness, but find you don’t actually feel happy? Does it become a negative feedback loop? 

Have you ever been in the middle of some milestone situation and thought, “Wow, I am supposed to be feeling happy right now, but I’m not?” Do you then feeling cheated, grumpy, dissatisfied, and depressed because you didn’t get the happiness you “deserved?” I’ve been there. How is this helpful and healthy? 

It’s not for me. Rather than pursue happiness, I’d rather find satisfaction in a day well-spent, in small and everyday pleasures, in a kindness given or received, in a chore completed, in a question answered, and in a new question to follow down the rabbit hole.