I recently read an article on theatlantic.com by Emily Estafani Smith called, "There's More to Life than Being Happy" (http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/01/theres-more-to-life-than-being-happy/266805/). As a psychotherapist, happiness is definitely a topic of great interest to me. In fact, most of my patients come to me in pursuit of happiness. Of course, "happiness" means different things to different people. For many of my patients, happiness means the absence (or even the lessening) of suffering. For others, happiness suggests the presence of a particular emotional state (accompanied by whatever else is necessary to achieve that state).
Americans place a great deal of value on individual happiness. The right of every man to pursue happiness is one of the central tenets upon which the country was founded. I doubt, however, that this is solely an American phenomenon. Among the core values of many nations (particular western nations) is the happiness of its citizens.
In some ways, then, Smith's assertion that there are more worthy goals in life than happiness is quite radical. What other aspiration is worthy of the time and effort we devote to seeking pleasure?
Smith suggests that having a sense of purpose or meaning in life is far more powerful than mere happiness. According to Smith, our single-minded focus on personal happiness creates a shallow and superficial existence. There is also evidence to suggest that setting happiness as one's primary aspiration is counter-productive; it actually makes us less happy.
While happiness is characterized by attaining pleasure for oneself, meaning is found in doing things for others. This explains why the things we find meaningful in life are not necessarily the things we most enjoy doing.
Still, people who say they have a purpose in life tend to report higher levels of overall well being than those who say they lack purpose. Happiness is dependent upon pleasure. Could it be that happiness, like pleasure, is fleeting?
In contrast, meaning tends to have a longer-term focus, which could explain its correlation with overall well being.
For me, Smith's article was an apt reminder not to get too consumed by the idea of happiness. Happiness is, after all, a natural byproduct of living a meaningful life. As such, it need not be pursued for its own sake.