Is It Better To Minimize Unhappiness Or Chase Your Dreams?

If you’re looking for some totally new ideas…something brilliant and fresh…then you’ll be disappointed with this post haha.  It’s basic stuff that we’ve all heard before, for the most part.  I don’t know about you, but sometimes I need to remind myself of the basics.  And working on this post has been a good reminder for me about what’s important in my life and how to be happy.  I hope you get something out of it too. :)


I was reading one of my friend Pat Meninga’s blog posts titled, “The Ultimate Cheat Sheet To A Life Of Freedom,” in which he lays out 10 steps that he’s found to help him live a more fulfilling and happy life.  The very first point he recommends is avoiding unhappiness instead of chasing your dreams.

How does that sound to you?  Is achieving your dreams the key to happiness?  Or should you focus instead on eliminating the sources of stress and frustration in your life and let happiness just show up by default?

At first glance, I was a little put off by the sound of that idea, but as I read his thoughts on that, it started to make more sense.  I still like the idea of shooting for…something…but his post made me think about this in a new way.

 What is the usual formula for how to be happy?

  1. Set goals.
  2. Make plans to achieve them.
  3. Take action on those plans every day to move closer to your goals.
  4. Reach goals and celebrate.  Yay!  Do the Happy Dance!

We often think that achieving our dreams will make us happy.

This is all good.  At least, it seems like it’s the right way to success and happiness.  But the problem is that successfully achieving your dreams often doesn’t lead to happiness.  There are tons of people who have reached their major life goals, yet they’re still unhappy with their lives:  successful actors, musicians, artists, pilots, soldiers, firefighters, football players, doctors, politicians, CEOs, bloggers…the list is neverending.

So what causes people to still be unhappy once they reach their goal?

I suppose that there are many possible answers to that question, and that they can be boiled down to these three right here.  Each of them holds some truth and value.  I think that combined they cover most of the issues involved.

Like I said above, there’s nothing new here.  These ideas aren’t original.  But what in life is truly original?  Hasn’t it all been said and done before?  Sometimes what we need is to revisit the wisdom that has been passed down to us and simply be reminded of the things we already learned.

1.  They chose the wrong goals in the first place.

Sure, this makes sense.  Some people think that becoming rich will make them happy.  So they set financial goals (like becoming a millionaire, for instance) and they work hard and they plan and they invest and they work and work.  Eventually, they reach the goal they set, and they feel great for awhile, but then the happiness goes away.

Then they look back at all the years they spent pursuing their goals and realize that they lost something along the way.  Maybe their marriage grew cold, and their spouse left them.  Or they didn’t spend time with their kids, and now the kids are grown up and moved out.

Okay, that seems like a reasonable solution:  they chose the wrong goals in life.  Success and wealth doesn’t make you happy, but family does.

But the problem with that is that there are some people who ARE genuinely happy as a result of being successful and wealthy, and on the flip side, there are also people who spend loads of time with their wife and kids, yet they’re always broke and stressed out and frustrated and unhappy with their life.

So this answer doesn’t completely resolve the problem for everybody, even though it gives some great insight.

2.  It’s the journey and not the destination that brings true joy.

This is another common explanation for why dream chasers are still unhappy after achieving their goals.

It’s human nature to strive for something.  We always want something more.  We want to have our own house.  Then we get it, and we’re happy for awhile.  But then we want a bigger house or a newer house or a house in a better neighborhood.  Then we get excited about that new goal, and we drive forward for years, working to attain it.  But when we finally get it, eventually we still want more.

The same rings true at work.

First, you want to get a job at a great company.  You get it, and that feels great, but then you want a promotion to supervisor.  So you push for that until you get the promotion, and you’re so happy…but then you feel limited or unappreciated so you want to make manager, and the whole thing starts over again.  Eventually you reach the top and decide that you should start your own company…

So stagnation leads to unhappiness, but constantly setting new goals and reaching for new heights is the key to sustaining our motivation and happiness.

Or so the theory goes.

Some people can certainly nod their heads in agreement.  This process of achieving goals and then pushing higher towards new goals makes them happy.

But that doesn’t always work out to be true either, now does it?

After devoting years of their lives to progressing to higher levels of success, some people eventually despise the rat race.  Maybe that’s because solution #1 was true (they chose the wrong goals in the first place), but as we’ve seen…some people really do enjoy the journey:  climbing the ladder…chasing their dreams…all that.

So there’s some truth in “the journey explanation.”  I like this answer myself, but I know that there is still a little more to it than this.

3.  They forgot to enjoy what they already have.

This is the main solution to unhappiness that Pat gave in his blog post, and I think we all can agree to its importance.  Going through life without being content with what we have is just a total mess.  We burn ourselves out and miss out on so many good things in life when we do this.  Even when we do achieve something great, it is often bittersweet because we look back and see that the seeds of happiness were all around us all along.

What About Avoiding Unhappiness?

So I can see how chasing dreams doesn’t necessarily increase happiness in a person’s life.  Nobody is born into the world and says, “I am unhappy as is, and the key to becoming happy is to become a ____.”  (rock star, scientist, mother, photographer, whatever)

We don’t have to chase our dreams to be happy.  We can be happy right here and right now.  In Patrick’s post he talked about eliminating the things in our lives that we feel cause us unhappiness, and that by doing so we can automatically achieve happiness, since happiness is our default state.

But now I’m wondering if even that is necessary?

Do we even need to avoid unhappiness?

Why can’t we just sidestep both the dreamer mentality AND the complainer mentality and experience happiness independently of our outward circumstances?

Can we simply generate feelings of happiness at will?

Can we choose to make it so, regardless of our status towards achieving goals or eliminating hardship?

Are some people happy simply because they choose to be?

And on the flip side, are other people unhappy because they are choosing that as well?

2 comments for “Is It Better To Minimize Unhappiness Or Chase Your Dreams?

  1. June 6, 2014 at 5:25 pm

    Excellent discussion points here, Chris.

    I have learned and experienced a little bit more since I wrote that post of mine.

    I lean even further towards the idea that “the solution is all about gratitude.” But on the other hand, we don’t just sit around all day and be totally blissed out over nothing. We can still live with purpose and intention I believe, as you are suggesting here.

    And maybe it depends on the person. My background was a bit….shall we say….messy. I had some real problems, internal problems, problems that revolved around self sabotage. So even if I am knocking down those goals left and right I would still be unhappy because I am prone to self pity, have a tendency towards self centered obsessive thinking, and so on.

    For me, I had to tackle those issues. I had to take action and fix those negative parts of my behavior before I could even think about long term happiness.

    And that is not to say that I am perfect today or anywhere near it. I am very much still a work in progress.

    You know what really stinks? When someone has insight into my life and they challenge me to grow and it makes me uncomfortable. This just happened to me in a very big way. I don’t like it! And I have a lot to learn yet. A whole lot.

    Right now I am very much at peace with the fact that I have to keep working on myself. I have to keep challenging myself to become a better version of myself. I can’t get lazy.

    I imagine that there are people out there who, perhaps, can afford to get lazy in terms of personal growth. They can slack off and just enjoy the ride for a while. And they will remain happy.

    I don’t know if I have that luxury. Maybe I am wired a bit differently. I have to keep looking for that next level, that next positive change, a new way to smash through my fears.

    It all comes back to fear for me. A kind of anxiety, not real clinical anxiety, but just a kind of fear that keeps me trapped, keeps me stuck at times. And every once in a while I find a way to walk through that fear and good things happen. But I usually take the long route. I spend too much time banging my head into the wall.

    Maybe that is the idea that “it’s OK to be stressed a bit, or to be unhappy at times, because that is natural and we get there anyway eventually, we find happiness.” And you talk about that idea, that maybe we can just accept that we are not happy today, not gonna be happy every second of every day, and just learn to appreciate the ride anyway.

    As a solution, gratitude is far too simple. How could that be the entire answer? Yet that is what really works. When I am at my happiest, I am grateful in that moment. And gratitude would seem to be a choice. Because I have been lucky enough to be grateful even in some situations where things were not really going my way. But I was excited about the challenges.

    I don’t think we can ever really “choose the wrong goals” so long as we evaluate and then move on. In other words, complacency is the real enemy, when we stop pursuing goals altogether. When we give up. Let’s say you want a 4 hour work week, and then you achieve it. But wait….you’re not as happy as you predicted! So what? Find another goal. The person who never experiments or strives to achieve anything is going to be stuck in the mud anyway. You may as well experiment.

    This is what they found with career satisfaction as well. You may as well dive in and start trying different kinds of jobs, because that is the only way you are really going to know if you love the work or not. Otherwise you are probably just fooling yourself. Go do the work! Then decide. Experiment. Fail fast. Keep failing, keep trying, keep experimenting. And be grateful for the ride.

    That is the ideal. I am no guru though, I strive for this myself and I miss the mark. Heck, I have missed several marks in the last year alone! But that is, I think, setting me up for a better year ahead. I am grateful to be able to fail today, in so many different ways. I think it is helping. I think it helps me find the right path.

  2. June 6, 2014 at 6:17 pm

    Oh my gosh, what an awesome comment, bro! I need like a whole day to digest it haha.

    Well, one thing I loved right off the bat was your statement,

    “…I had to take action and fix those negative parts of my behavior before I could even think about long term happiness…”

    This reminds me of the major progress I’ve made recently in overcoming anxiety and depression. So many people with anxiety focus on the surface, on their symptoms, and their treatment plan usually seems to address that: pills, meditation, exercise, diet, supplements, etc. But they aren’t really dealing directly with the sources of fear and anxiety and stress and unhappiness in their lives.

    It’s like they are doing these things to achieve some “short term” happiness — relief from symptoms — yet they overlook the deeper issues which are making them unhappy in the long run. Like how you just said that in order to achieve “long term” happiness, you had to address those behaviors and thought patterns that were at the root of your unhappiness.

    For me, battling anxiety, focusing on long-term solutions has been key. Dealing directly with the causes of my anxiety rather than just settling for short term solutions.

    I also love the “so what?” approach to dealing with the letdown that sometimes occurs after accomplishing a goal. Just set another goal and have fun working towards that one too.

    I wish more people would take that approach instead of getting themselves all worked up, thinking that one single goal is like the holy grail and that once they get there everything in life will be perfect.

    So what? Enjoy the success, and then keep moving.

    I like how you’ve demonstrated this so well over the years too. You’ve accomplished some huge successes in life, and then there were some goals you reached and then it was like, “So what? Okay. I did it. Time to do something else now.” haha :)

    Every time we talk there is a new goal, a new project, something to get excited about and reach for. I love that. I know that some people might criticize that for whatever reason, but I love it. To me it’s a sign that you’re really alive and passionate about your life.

Comments are closed.