Originally published on December 31, 2018 in the Washington Post, which can be found here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2018/12/31/how-set-new-years-resolutions-that-maximize-happiness/
Millions of Americans will make New Year’s resolutions. Some will vow to make more money or new friends. Others will focus on exercising more or eating less. Each resolution represents the hope that changing one’s behavior or priorities will bring increased happiness.
Such aspirations are a truly American tradition. The pursuit of happiness serves as a substitute for fixed estates or castes, promising that every person can establish personal priorities rather than following those dictated by birth or tradition. It’s even built in our founding documents: In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson placed the “pursuit of happiness” next to life and liberty.
And yet, most Americans are left with more pursuit than actual happiness. The Harris Poll’s Survey of American Happiness, conducted annually since 2008, has consistently shown that only about a third of Americans feel happy.
So what New Year’s resolution should we make to achieve happiness? The philosopher and psychologist William James had some ideas. At the turn of the 20th century, James explored how to find happiness, and today his lessons can help us balance the desire for material satisfaction and social status with the more substantial goal of personal fulfillment.
In a chapter from his 1890 book “The Principles of Psychology,” James summarized the search for happiness with a simple equation: Self-esteem = Success / Pretensions. Success can make us feel happy by boosting our self-esteem. But high expectations can undercut that source of happiness, because it is not enough simply to succeed more; we also have to lower our expectations.
To help illustrate this point, James distinguished between happiness and satisfaction. Compared to happiness, satisfaction depends more on external circumstances and so is more susceptible to the lure of higher expectations: For example, maybe a glitzy new cellphone or a promotion will finally bring permanent smiles.
Americans have long been known for their love of newfangled devices, as British journalist Henry Norman observed during an 1898 visit to the United States. Unlike the British, with their persistent loyalty to things that work, Americans celebrate (and buy) countless new possessions, even when they don’t address any particular need. What’s more, Norman observed, Americans “will try an object one day and throw it away the next for something a trifle more convenient or expeditious.” By 1970, when Simon and Garfunkel sang about “keep[ing] the customer satisfied,” audiences would instantly recognize the reference to America’s fixation with material satisfaction.
But for James, happiness was different. It generally marches to the beat of its own drummer, without waiting for outside support. Henry David Thoreau, for instance, lowered his expectations by living simply at Walden Pond. With fewer material satisfactions, he declared that “my wealth is not possession but enjoyment” — an idea that included relishing experiences and simply having more time.
And yet, the paths to happiness advocated by Thoreau and James have remained unpopular. Why? Because Americans have largely opted to pursue satisfaction, not happiness, and seek material and social successes to stoke their self-esteem. For decades, these pursuits have been engines for economic growth and staples of American politics. In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt enshrined the “freedom from want” as a pillar of democracy, on par with First Amendment freedoms.
James recognized something fundamentally important, and it is this notion that has become lost in our increasingly expanding consumer culture: Material satisfaction fulfills basic needs, but once a person is freed from desperation, more material goods can actually undercut happiness, especially if the expectations for satisfaction keeps rising.
As a result, the constant search for satisfaction can put happiness permanently out of reach, because even the success wrought from high achievements will always feel “ever not quite,” as James realized. Hollywood’s classic 1941 film “Citizen Kane” captured this dynamic. Orson Welles’s character Charles Foster Kane was awash in wealth but constantly pined for the simple joys of childhood, symbolized by Rosebud the sled.
James himself only gradually came to this realization. As a young man, he was unhappy, despite growing up in a well-off family and enjoying the privilege of a Harvard education. When researching his early development, I was struck by his physical ailments, depression, uncertainty about his career, family tensions and awkwardness with women. He even vowed never to marry to avoid any chance of passing his troubled traits to another generation.
Despite his problems, James became the founder of American psychology, an advocate for pragmatism, an innovator of spiritual approaches to religion and a committed public intellectual. How did this disturbed young man become such a confident and influential figure?
He ditched satisfaction in favor of happiness.
James embraced his limitations, rather than focusing all his attention on fixing them. In letters to family and friends, he even called his problems “a periodical neccessity [sic].” This new posture gave “a sort of deep enthusiastic bliss.” Happiness, he understood, emerged from a “bitter willingness to do and suffer anything.” The meaningful future he was creating, even in small steps of learning, writing and discussing, was more important than his troubles. And those purposeful engagements became his new source of happiness.
In his 1892 book “Psychology,” James drew on this distinction between satisfaction and happiness. The self in its material and social dimensions that craves things and status aims for satisfaction. Beneath our material and social selves, however, an inner core persists with purpose no matter what satisfactions the world brings or withholds. If financial or social successes, or any other short-term want, are not in tune with that self, better to find different goals.
James’s insights have shaped the contemporary field of positive psychology. Researchers today advise seeking happiness in two ways. First, pay attention to your own distinct traits and cultivate those as your strengths. Second, because initial strengths are often not enough, persist with motivation and commitment. This “grit” is generally a surer path to success than native ability.
For the contemporary psychologists, as for James, the greatest happiness comes from finding meaning through focus on significant purpose, especially when effort is crowned with a sense of accomplishment. Even satisfying countless material wants cannot measure up to the happiness flowing from creative achievement or from helping a child in need. And often, with the focus on well-chosen inner purpose, material and social successes will emerge as side effects of being true to one’s self.
So go ahead and make those New Year’s resolutions. Incorporating these suggestions from James and company can turn your vow into a path to happiness:
1. Make a resolution that’s in tune with your deepest commitments.
2. Invest in that resolution with a sense of purpose.
3. Don’t shy away from the challenges it might present and keep going.
A resolution energized with these supports offers the best chance of ensuring your pursuits to lead to genuine happiness.