At some point in the self-help industry, the advice to do what makes you happy was promoted by almost every self-help guru. And people loved it.
We like the idea of living our best life and doing what we want with the time we have. But a lot of people didn’t agree with this advice, and for good reasons.
If you’ve been alive for a while, you’ll quickly realize that there’s a lot of suffering in the world. If you want to do only the things that make you feel good, how would you survive? Fair point right?
So if you’re wondering if doing only the things that make you happy is a good thing, I understand your confusion. The other way people will often put this advice is “follow your passion.” They’re two sides of the same coin.
The major argument people often have against this advice is this: If we do only those things that make us happy, we’ll never grow. We might end up in a circle of pleasure that will lead us down the wrong path.
But how true is this?
Well, like most things in life, it’s not as easy as black and white.
When you hear someone say “Do what makes you happy,” what comes to your mind?
What does happiness mean to you? The way you answer these questions depends a lot on how you view “happiness”. If you think being happy only has to do with getting high, doing drugs, having sex, and partying, then “Do what makes you happy” is terrible advice for you.
But if you’re thinking like a mature adult, you should understand that partying all night and waking up sober and confused and completely oblivious about what happened the night before isn’t being happy. It’s misery.
What does it really mean to do what makes you happy?
One of the reasons I work very hard on writing and building an online business isn’t just because I love what I do. It’s also because I don’t want a future of anger, resentment, and unhappiness. I understand the repercussions of doing only pleasurable things that won’t make me happy in the long run.
My fear of a sad future motivates me to do the things that will make me truly happy.
So here’s the thing: Pleasure doesn’t always equal happiness.
To understand what it really means to be happy, think of what Victor Frankl said in his book, Man’s Search For Meaning. He explained that happiness only comes as a side effect of pursuing something meaningful.
In other words, the more you chase happiness, the more it eludes you. This is why people who attempt to be happy by getting drunk, doing drugs, and partying all the time often achieve the opposite. I saw this first hand all the time when I was in college.
Those who think “Doing what makes you happy” is terrible advice equate happiness to pleasure. But the truth is that doing what makes you happy doesn’t have anything to do with pleasure. It has more to do with making the right choices for your life long term.
Real happiness is derived from something that isn’t ephemeral. For instance, mastering a craft, building good habits, improving yourself, and spending quality time with your loved ones. These are the things that truly lead to happiness.
The only problem with “doing what makes you happy”
“The youth expects his career to be like an interesting romance; and there lies the germ of that disappointment.” — Arthur Schopenhauer
Some people use the phrase as an excuse to do only what they feel is pleasurable. This means that if things get boring at a job, a relationship doesn’t feel exciting anymore, or learning a skill becomes too difficult, they check out.
When you think the things that make you happy only mean the convenient stuff, you’ll never make any real progress with anything worthwhile. As Jordan Peterson often put it, life is suffering. And when you chase only what’s pleasurable, you won’t have the ability for the kind of long-term commitment that leads to happiness.
Also read: 10 Negative Personality Traits That Make People Miserable
Sometimes doing what makes you happy means doing difficult things
Doing drugs is pleasurable, but it makes you miserable. Exercising every morning is difficult, but it makes you feel good in the long run.
There’s no confusion about it.
When you’re deciding what makes you happy, think of your future self. A functional person should be able to order his steps in a way that he doesn’t completely ruin things for himself in the future.
So is “do what makes you happy” good advice?
Yes. It means doing the things that truly matter in making your life more meaningful. And there’s nothing wrong with it.
Things like spending time with your loved ones, reading a good book, walking your dog, listening to your favorite song, mastering a skill that took a lot of time and hard work to learn, etc., make us happy, and they’ll always be good for us.
However, people who take it as bad advice think doing what makes you happy means being led by your instinct for comfort and pleasure. But how can you say something makes you happy when it puts you in a worse place in the long run?
What’s important isn’t whether or not you should do what makes you happy. What matters is that you know what makes you happy. Once you know it, doing it will make more sense.
Also read: How to Be Happily Single