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Why Everything We've Been Told About Happiness Is Flawed

The traditional path to happiness doesn't work for many, so here's how to bring more meaning into your everyday life.

Why Everything We've Been Told About Happiness Is Flawed
[Photo: Flickr user John Goode; App Photo: Vincent van Gogh's Sejbstbuidnis (1887)]

The "standard" blueprint for a happy life usually reads something like this: Go to college. Get a job in a big corporation that provides good benefits. Find a partner. Have children. Buy a house. Raise your children. Retire and hope to go on a cruise (before you die of a heart attack.)

Author Colin Beavan’s life was on that trajectory, but instead of feeling successful, he felt dissatisfied and guilty about the affect his pursuits were having on the earth.

"The truth is that those old approaches to happiness no longer work for us or the world, and they’re starting to break down," he says. "A college education no longer guarantees a corporate job. Once you get a job, there is no guarantee you’ll keep it or even get health care. We can no longer maintain the illusion that any of this is successful."

Beavan scrapped the standard blueprint in 2007, when he and his family embarked on a yearlong experiment to reduce their carbon footprint. He chronicled their journey in the book and documentary No Impact Man, and discovered that life was better when you live it according to your values. Soon people asked how they could be more like him and have a more meaningful and happy life.

"The idea isn’t to be like me; it’s to be more like you," says Beavan, whose latest book, How to Be Alive: A Guide to the Kind of Happiness That Helps the World, helps readers rethink their own definition of happiness. "The idea is to explore who you are in your own life so you can make choices that are better for you and the world."

Redefining Happiness

Once you accept that the old path to happiness is an illusion, you have to acknowledge that there is no new standard story that provides a new path, says Beavan. "It’s no longer about personal happiness," he says. "That happiness is narcissistic and comes at the expense of the world."

To redefine happiness, you have to explore who you really are. "Too many of us get caught up in the 10,000 ad messages that bombard us every day, and we start wanting things we don’t need," says Beavan. "Things are at the surface of who we are; deeper inside, you find passions. Ask yourself, ‘What do I care about?’"

Start Small

The answer doesn’t require a career change or grand action; that will stop you, says Beavan. Instead, explore who you are in the world by looking at simple relationships you have with things like food, products, or transportation. Then choose one aspect of your life that matters to you, and take a step each day toward manifesting value in that area.

Perhaps you want to explore your relationship to coffee, for example. Beavan suggests starting by making a commitment to only purchase and drink ethically produced coffee. But don’t stop there. Research the harm the traditional coffee industry is doing. Find out how you can help, and take steps to make a difference.

"Begin by saying, ‘Today I care about this.’ Then fix that one thing," he says. "We can worry about all of the problems of the world and do nothing, or we can be happy that there are tremendous opportunities that we can plug into. This is an opportunity to redefine our lives and find our happiness."

Finding Your Calling

As you make small changes, you begin to gain competence in living according to your values, says Beavan, and eventually you may start to change bigger things. The process is how you define your calling, but it won’t happen right away, says Beavan.

"We usually don’t know enough about ourselves to identify that right away," he says. "Nor do we have types of lives to support that. Experimenting in those smaller relationships helps you find what will give you fulfillment by helping the world."

Many people design a career around their calling, but callings can also emerge in the moment, says Beavan. For example, if you care about what’s happening with racial barriers, identify what you can do in your life to make a difference.

"If you work in HR, for example, you might begin by working on a new hiring policy," says Beavan. "Avoid hiring from personal networks. Advertise jobs and cast a wider net to find new talent. Ask yourself, ‘How can I deal with this in my life right now?'"

Happiness is not the end goal of life, says Beavan. "Happy people help more people," he says. "If you make yourself miserable helping the world, you won’t help for long. Find ways to help that make you happy, too. This gives you the energy to help more. Happiness is not our purpose; it’s the fuel to fulfill our purpose."


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