In "Stop trying to be happy", Mark Manson argues that happiness isn't something to be sought directly: it arises naturally when we're living a life in accord with our values.
"Just as a confident man doesn't wonder if he’s confident, a happy man does not wonder if he’s happy. He simply is... Happiness is not achieved in itself, but rather it is the side effect of a particular set of ongoing life experiences."
Manson also makes a distinction between happiness and pleasure. He suggests that when most people seek happiness what they're actually seeking is pleasure - "good food, more sex, more time for TV and movies... and so on". However, pleasure is short-term and superficial. Happiness is more enduring, precisely because it arises as a by-product of the way we are living our life.
Manson disputes the idea that to be happy we need to be successful:
"For instance, a friend of mine recently started a high-risk business venture. He dried up most of his savings trying to make it work and failed. Today, he’s happier than ever for his experience. It taught him many lessons about what he wanted and didn’t want in life and it eventually led him to his current job, which he loves. He’s able to look back and be proud that he went for it because otherwise he would have always wondered “what if?” and that would have made him unhappier than any failure would have.
The failure to meet our own expectations is not antithetical to happiness, and I’d actually argue that the ability to fail and still appreciate the experience is actually a fundamental building block for happiness."
His broader point is an idea that I've heard others echo: that while setting goals is useful to give us a direction in which to head, whether we achieve them is secondary. What's important is what we do or learn while trying to get there.
If we focus too hard on the goal itself there's a danger that we won't know what to do when we achieve it. Focus on the goal of running a marathon and there's a risk that we stop running altogether once we complete it, feeling there's nothing left to achieve. Focus on running a marathon as a means to improving our fitness, or establishing a habit of running more frequently, however, and we're more likely to retain a sense of momentum.
Goals should be a means to an end, not an end in themselves. And then, even if we don't achieve them, we can still feel that we have learned something valuable on the way.
"With regards to being happy, it seems the best advice is also the simplest: Imagine who you want to be and then step towards it. Dream big and then do something. Anything. The simple act of moving at all will change how you feel about the entire process and serve to inspire you further.
Let go of the imagined result — it’s not necessary. The fantasy and the dream are merely tools to get you off your ass. It doesn't matter if they come true or not. Live, man. Just live. Stop trying to be happy and just be."