The veterinary pursuit of happiness

July 14, 2019
Mike Paul, DVM
Mike Paul, DVM

Dr. Paul is the former executive director of the Companion Animal Parasite Council and a former president of the American Animal Hospital Association. He is currently the principal of MAGPIE Veterinary Consulting. He is retired from practice and lives in Anguilla, British West Indies.

Some of us expect happiness to fall into our laps. Some expect it to never come. I think theres another way to think about being happy.

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Are you happy? And I mean the pinch-yourself, look-in-the-mirror-and-say-“Damn! This is my life!” kind of happy.

Most of us don't need a formal definition of happiness-we know it when we feel it. Happiness is generally intertwined with a range of positive emotions like joy, contentment, satisfaction, relief, pride and gratitude. Happiness is a positive emotion associated with pleasant physical expressions like laughter, smiles, even tears.

We all have an idea of what it means to be happy, so why aren't more of us consistently happy? Everyone wants to be happy, but too often we wait for it to find us. Too often, we have internal conversations built on anticipating happiness: If I were loved, I'd be happy … if I had a better job … if I had more money … if I could reach my goal, be better liked and have more friends, be in a loving relationship, then I'd be happy!

The trouble is, none of these things will guarantee we're happy and stay happy. These are largely circumstances in which we've told ourselves we'll feel happy if they're true. Whatever you have or don't have, whatever you do or don't do, whatever you accomplish or don't-if you aren't happy in your current reality, the odds are you likely won't ever be happy. (Editor's note: Boy, this topic shows up a lot in TED Talks.)

Our forefathers outlined our rights in the Declaration of Independence to life, liberty and happiness, right? Not exactly. We're not guaranteed happiness but the right to the pursuit of happiness. Life and liberty are ours for the taking, and we fight to maintain them as rights, but no one guarantees that we will identify or achieve happiness. We look for it, we wait for it, but we're not assured happiness-only the right to its pursuit.

But getting what we want will bring us happiness, right? Wrong! We go in search of happiness thinking it's something that can be “found” or granted, when in actuality happiness is something we unconsciously manufacture. Happiness is an interpretation of our experiences. We make it up out of whole cloth based on genetics, circumstances and experiences. It is, in large part, up to us. Oh, there are things that bring sadness, disappointment and heartache, but as the Rolling Stones song goes, “If you try sometimes, you might just get what you need.” The only problem is, we don't try-we wait for something to happen so we can feel happy.

Can you buy happiness?

“If only I had more money.” If so, how much money do you need, and what would you do with it to buy happiness? According to a study out of Harvard Business School, money contributes to happiness a great deal until basic needs are met. Once you have what you need, more money does not equate a proportional increase in happiness. In fact, once basic needs have been met, more money may have the paradoxical result of reduced life satisfaction. Oh, don't get me wrong, more money allows us to do more, have more and maybe even feel more secure about the future, but this study shows that the real experience of happiness does not increase with wealth.

Don't look outside for happiness

I think history and human life teaches us that there is no one pathway to happiness. As Buddhist monk and philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh said in one of his lectures, “There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way.” In other words, happiness is not the destination, but the journey. It is always at our fingertips, there for the taking, but no one else can make us happy. If only it were that easy. If only we could sit back and let someone else do all the heavy lifting. For now, it's up to us.

Dr. Mike Paul is the former executive director of the Companion Animal Parasite Council and a former president of the American Animal Hospital Association. He is currently the principal of Magpie Veterinary Consulting. He is retired from practice and lives in Anguilla, British West Indies.