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The Happiness Paradox

Are you looking for happiness? Most people are in one form or another. It’s not too often that you hear someone say, “I’m just trying to be as miserable as I can be.” We like to feel good. We like to be happy. It isn’t easy though. Happiness can seem elusive and ephemeral. Just when you think you’ve found it, the situation changes and you’ve lost it again.

Sometimes it makes us wonder, “Can we find lasting happiness?” It’s a deep question, too deep for our purposes here today, but I would like to put forth an idea that can get us much closer to that goal, paradoxical though it may seem.

How is happiness typically displayed today? How are people encouraged to find it? You can find images and videos of the happiest people you will ever see in any number of advertisements for any number of products. The advertisements seem to say, “Just buy this item or eat this food or visit this place, and you can be as happy as the people you see.” If only it were so simple! If only it were about the things we had or the places we visited. Then the solution is simple. Just buy those things or visit those places and happiness is achieved! Right?

Except it doesn’t seem to work out that way. The standard of living in the world today is the highest it has ever been. Some places have unlimited access to the internet; the source of almost all the knowledge available in the world today. People are able to travel farther and more freely than at any other time in history. The level of convenience available is unparalleled in history, and yet personal satisfaction is down. The average levels of happiness are decreasing today. It appears that we are doing something wrong.

In general, I believe most people know that ‘things’ won’t bring them true happiness. It’s an old idea that has stood the test of time; but, while we ‘know’ this principle, we don’t always act in accordance with it. We say we would like more happiness, but at the first chance we get, we run out and buy that one thing we’ve been waiting on or take that ‘trip of a lifetime’ only to find that after the purchase, we’re still searching for happiness.

How do we change our methods? I’m not claiming to have the one and only solution, but I believe I have a very effective suggestion. Here comes the paradox. How do we get out of the pursuit of things for happiness and into the pursuit of happiness itself?

Forget yourself.

I don’t believe that toys and trips and hobbies are intrinsically bad things. There is much good that can come from them. I believe the focus on ourselves is what gets us out of the path of happiness. This seems rather paradoxical. If I’m not happy, shouldn’t I focus on myself to figure out what is making me unhappy and change that to the things that will make me happy? If I forget about myself, how can I ever make myself happy?

I believe the key to understanding the paradox lies in the nature of happiness. Happiness is not an event, or a series of events. It is not created by circumstance or situation. Happiness is a metaphysical (some might say spiritual) event. Perhaps Harold B. Lee put it best when he said, “Happiness does not depend on what happens outside of you, but on what happens inside of you. It is measured by the spirit with which you meet the problems of life.”

Our problem in our search for happiness today is that we are trying to satisfy the metaphysical with the physical. Things, events, and experiences will never suffice. They are wholly tied to the realm of the physical. We must get beyond the physical if we are to find an answer.

I’ve seen a number of ways people have suggested to help us shift our focus to the metaphysical but the one I believe does the best job at bridging the gap between the physical and metaphysical is service. Sometimes that word seems daunting, so we could just as easily say, ‘doing good’, or ‘helping others’. It’s the best example of which I know where physical actions bring metaphysical returns and is the reason I believe we need to forget ourselves more often. Helping others requires selflessness. It requires us to prioritize the needs of others over our own, at least temporarily. It requires us to look beyond the end of our noses – so to speak – and recognize the needs of others.

How does it work? Why does doing something for others bring more happiness than doing something for yourself? In her great book, “A Little Princess”, Francis Hodgson Burnett said, “If nature has made you for a giver, your hands are born open, and so is your heart; and though there may be times when your hands are empty, your heart is always full.” I’m not sure I can explain it any better than that (if you are interested in pursuing this idea more, I highly recommend reading the following three books which I believe illustrate this principle in full: “The Hiding Place” by Corrie Ten Boom, “A Little Princess” by Francis Hodgson Burnett, and “The Secret Garden” by Francis Hodgson Burnett). Is there a better description of happiness than a heart that is “always full”?

The Bible makes a similar appeal to service in St Matthew 10:39. “He that findeth his life shall lose it; and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” There are certainly a number of different ways to understand this text, but let’s view it from the perspective of service. If you “find” (or seek) your own life and your own life only, what kind of life have you created? A person who lives only for themself has an empty life. If you “lose your life” in the service of others, you will find a life rich with meaning. Lose yourself in helping others and you will find a much greater version of yourself.

Sometimes we feel that our efforts are too small. How can we make a difference? I don’t think we give our actions the weight they deserve. Jordan Peterson said, “I believe that the good that people do, small though it may appear, has more to do with the good that manifests broadly in the world than people think.” (Beyond Order, pg 147) Too often we sit and wait for someone to make the changes we wish to see in the world. We like to point out the problems and wait for someone to fix them. We should remember that good things don’t happen unless someone is doing them. Why shouldn’t that someone be you?

So come and participate in the happiness paradox. Think less about yourself and what you want and more about how you can use your unique talents to help others. Lose yourself so that you can find your true self. There is a lot of good in the world that needs doing, and there is a full heart waiting for those participating.


At Believe, we are working to accomplish good in the world. We believe in you and your ability to serve and help those around you; from the smallest of neighborly favors to the largest charitable actions of which you can dream. We would love to have you join us as we work to be the good that people wish to see in the world today.

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