Counseling Today, Features

The (misguided) pursuit of happiness

By Laurie Meyers February 1, 2017

Happiness. Most Americans seem to believe that it is something to which we are entitled. After all, happiness — or at least the pursuit of it — is enshrined in our nation’s Declaration of Independence.

As a result, we invest a significant amount of time, money and effort looking for that magical thing/place/person/experience that will ultimately deliver the promise of happiness. We play the lottery, hoping for the big payoff that will make everything better. We buy books that promise us happiness in X number of steps. We go to spas and wellness retreats hoping to meditate, stretch or massage our way to happiness. There is even a whole school of psychological thought — positive psychology — that has devoted much of its time to the study of happiness.

But what is happiness? Is it a state of being? A process? A transient emotion? And whatever it is, can counselors help clients find or achieve it?

“I think our culture defines happiness as a relative emotional state of bliss or euphoria that comes and goes,” says licensed professional counselor Ryan Thomas Neace, the founder of Change Inc., a counseling practice in St. Louis that focuses on holistic practices to help clients achieve biological, psychological, social and spiritual wellness. “The great irony being that we tend to ignore that relative ‘coming and going’ and demand that happiness stick around permanently. It doesn’t end very well that way.”

Reaching for the wrong goal

Perhaps happiness isn’t exactly what most people are looking for after all.

“I think we struggle with the fleeting nature of happiness because our culture is so consumeristic,” says Neace, an American Counseling Association member who also blogs about spirituality and religion on The Huffington Post website. “Happiness, we think, like everything else, ought to be something we can obtain on a permanent basis if we just put together the right combination of life factors — a nice body, a good partner, a strong education, a large salary, etc. If we’re unhappy, we work out more and eat less, end a relationship and/or start a new one, change schools or jobs, etc.”

But none of those things can deliver lasting happiness, Neace asserts. “Even if some of these things are related to happiness, they don’t change its fundamental nature as fleeting and elusive,” he says.

People sometimes seek happiness by avoiding reality, Neace observes. “Anything that helps us to avoid reality on a relatively permanent basis cannot ultimately lead to happiness and is eventually — if not immediately — destructive,” he says. “I’m not talking about the person who has had a rough day and decides to smoke a joint or have a glass of wine to relax a little, and I’m not talking about people who use fantasy playfully in recreation or to spice up their sex lives.

“Instead, I’m talking about the clients I’ve had who plow through their lives doing anything they can to avoid facing up to their mismatched occupations, their wayward teenagers, their sexual identities, etc. I’m talking about the person who avoids looking at his or her failing marriage because they don’t want to be unhappy. It sounds so illogical from an outside, third-party perspective, but it happens all the time. What really happens isn’t that the person doing the avoiding somehow magically becomes happy; [it’s] that their unhappiness shifts locations, usually to someplace outside their conscious awareness. So the person in an unhappy marriage compulsively spends money or works excessively to avoid being at home. It’s like squeezing one end of a balloon — it just makes the other end swell.”

Even some of the most prominent voices in happiness research are rethinking happiness as a goal. For instance, Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology and author of the 2002 book Authentic Happiness, eventually rejected happiness as the ultimate goal. In his 2011 book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, Seligman discussed the limitations of happiness as the key to life satisfaction. This is because happiness is too based on mood, he said, so Seligman redefined positive psychology to focus on “well-being.”

True satisfaction

If happiness is not necessarily to be the stated goal in counseling, what is? “In therapy, I try to contrast that for clients with something that is probably more akin to contentment, which I define as a quality of ‘OK-ness’ that is nonrelative –— present for the most part without regard to circumstance or situation,” Neace says. “Contentment can include moments of happiness, but it doesn’t demand that those feelings, or any others for that matter, stick around. Contentment transcends happiness and allows it to actually be what we already know it is — sometimes fleeting and elusive, prone to slip away when the wind changes direction.”

Maya Georgieva, a national certified counselor whose counseling approach emphasizes wellness and focuses on the effects of emotional strain on the body, prefers to concentrate on helping clients live richer, fuller lives. Rather than helping clients strive for happiness, Georgieva views her goal as helping them to grow — a process that is unique to each individual. Instead of focusing on attaining some ephemeral state of being, she believes it is more important to find out what the client wants to achieve and what he or she wants to change.

Georgieva encourages “self-actualization” for clients. “We’re born with the ability and desire … to grow,” she says. Growth involves removing any barriers that hinder clients from learning and creating new relationships and accomplishments.

When clients show up to counseling looking for “happiness,” Neace emphasizes the importance of telling them that contentment should be the goal instead. “There’s typically a ton of work to be done there simply around insight and helping people recognize the problem underneath the problem,” he says. “In other words, clients typically come in and tell us that some relationship or job or situation is unsatisfactory and must change. [In their eyes], it is the problem. … It is our job to point out to them that perhaps it is their approach — trying to squeeze happiness out of every situation — that actually causes the real trouble and is, in fact, the problem underneath the problem.”

“The key here for counselors is helping clients understand that reality can actually be a decent source upon which to base their existence,” he continues. Reality might not always be happy, but it can serve as the basis for contentment, Neace observes.

The leisure perspective 

ACA member Rodney Dieser believes leisure is very important for overall well-being. As such, he is a proponent of the “serious leisure perspective,” which was developed by sociologist Robert Stebbins.

As explained by Dieser, a professor of leisure, youth and human services at the University of Northern Iowa, the serious leisure perspective has three components.

1) Serious leisure involves spending a large amount of time to master skills as a hobby. An example would be learning to play an instrument over time and participating in the community orchestra.

2) Casual leisure is what most people think of as leisure. Examples include relaxing, going to a restaurant, resting on a hammock or going to the beach.

3) Project-based leisure involves taking on a project that is somewhat complicated but that doesn’t involve more “serious skills.” Examples include planning a family vacation, engaging in fundraising for a local community project or participating in other kinds of volunteer efforts.

In addition to allowing the body to relax, leisure can help clients build and strengthen relationships, achieve a sense of purpose and establish a sense of community, Dieser says. For example, Dieser once worked with a middle-aged man who had stage 4 renal disease that rendered him unable to work. He was home on disability and depressed. Part of his distress involved his identity as a traditional male who viewed himself as the primary provider for the family. Now, because of renal disease, his wife had to work and provide financial support for the family instead.

“One of the things I did was ask him to reflect back on his life. Was there anything he did in his free time that he enjoyed?” Dieser recalls. “He said that he used to fish a lot and was a serious angler and fly fisherman. He still had the rods and tackle box, but all the gear hadn’t been out in 10 years.”

Dieser suggested that because the man now had extra time on his hands and already owned all the gear, he might consider taking up fishing again. The man started going out regularly and even taught his daughter how to fish. The father and daughter bonded over these experiences, which ultimately made their relationship stronger.

“When I first met him in assessment, his role/purpose in life was his family,” Dieser says. “So now he is fishing regularly with his daughter, which is fulfilling his existential purpose. One of the benefits of this terrible development is he gets to do things he wouldn’t have gotten to do [otherwise].”

In another case, Dieser was working with a single father in his 40s who had medical issues, depression and anxiety. His family was struggling financially, and the client felt isolated. During a counseling session, he talked to Dieser about the possibility of buying a Jet Ski. The man felt guilty about even considering the possibility because of the family’s finances, but operating a personal watercraft was something he had loved previously, and he wanted to share this activity with his two daughters.

“I let the guy talk about it and work through it out loud, [evaluating] the pros and cons,” Dieser says. When viewing it from a financial standpoint, the client thought his priority should be to pay some bills that were past due. But Dieser also had him look at it from a relationship perspective: Could he really put a price tag on spending time with his daughters? Was it possible for him to pay most of his bills and still buy the Jet Ski as an act of self-care?

The client decided to buy a used Jet Ski and started taking his daughters out with him as part of their family time. He also developed friendships with other owners of personal watercraft and ended up on a boating committee, which allowed him to contribute and provided a sense of purpose. Dieser says that all of these developments helped ease the client’s depression.

Final thoughts

Unfortunately, Dieser says, many Americans operate under the belief that they can buy happiness. In addition, he thinks that the individual nature of American culture often leads to isolation.

“The U.S. is the most individualist country in the world,” he says. “We are constantly not paying attention to relationships and belongingness. We are so focused on ourselves that we get lonely and there is no one there to provide a safety net when we fall.”

“The leisure-happiness connection is there, but it hasn’t really been defined,” Dieser says. “Leisure creates meaning, belonging, fulfillment and purpose. I think those are the same things that create happiness. Most people think of leisure as just doing nothing but relaxing. They don’t see it as about energy and engagement.”

“The real power of leisure is actually giving meaning in life,” he says. “I really see leisure connected to existential counseling.”

“It’s possible that any number of additional constructs are related to the search for happiness but, ultimately, no source outside ourselves can produce it,” Neace says. “Don’t get me wrong — we need a ton of support, encouragement, guidance, wisdom, friendship, etc., from outside of ourselves. But the ultimate goal isn’t just that we have a bunch of external sources of validation and satisfaction, but that we learn to internalize those sources into a united, inner chorus that helps us know we are enough, that things are OK — even if they aren’t OK right now — and that we’re going to make it. Perhaps that’s the key difference between happiness and contentment — the movement from an external to internal source of strength and resilience.”




Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at

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