The Pursuit of Happiness

I was privileged during the decade of the 1980s’ to have studied and obtain psychoanalytic supervision with a masterful and highly respected contemporary psychoanalyst, the late Walter Bonime, M.D. From the vantage point of his nearly 50 years of psychoanalytic practice, teaching, and writing he had rich insight and wisdom to impart. One of many important lessons learned from Dr. Bonime is the futility of the direct pursuit of happiness. Bonime in numerous consultations emphasized to me that happiness is not a state that people achieve or arrive at as a result of directed effort towards that end, but rather happiness is a by-product. It is the subjective feeling that one notices as a spin-off of doing something meaningful, satisfying, or helpful to others. In other words if a person sets out with the goal of directly seeking happiness, in all probability, they will fail. If, on the other hand, a person is focused on doing something useful, constructive, meaningful, and/or helpful to others he/she may notice in the course of functioning a subjective feeling of happiness.

So many formulas for happiness are set-ups for defeat and self-sabotage.

How many pharmaceutical tablets and illicit drugs are ingested each day in the quest for that illusory sense of “happiness?” This is not to disparage the need that people suffering clinical depression, anxiety or other psychiatric disorders may have to take prescription medications to relieve their symptoms. But we live in a “quick-fix” age when pharmaceutical remedies, “getting high”, or “buzzed’ with a favorite alcoholic drink have special appeal to assuage our lack of “happiness.”

Another critical factor to consider, as Bonime observed, is the person’s own definition of what constitutes happiness. If being happy, for example, requires that you get a particular person, to love you who happens to love someone else instead–than you will never be happy. Another guaranteed form of self-sabotage is to hinge one’s happiness on being loved by someone who does not know how to give love, perhaps a parent who has never been able to offer love, That same parent may have missed out on the very same thing in her/his own childhood and perhaps this pattern could be traced back multiple generations. There may be others present in one’s life that are loving and giving, but if happiness is predicated on receiving love from a person who is unable to give it, unhappiness is the certain result.

Happiness is elusive only if we seek it directly. If instead we find useful ways to contribute and engage in an active and full participation in life we may discover that we experience feelings of happiness. Also, we must look carefully at our personal definitions of happiness to make sure that they are not a certain prescription for unhappiness, the opposite of what we intend.

David A. Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP is a Board Certified Clinical Psychologist and Director of the Rhinebeck Child and Family Center in Rhinebeck, NY. ( He is author/co-author of four books: Engaging Resistant Children in Therapy; Understanding and Treating the Aggression of Children: Fawns in Gorilla Suits; A Handbook of Play Therapy with Aggressive Children; and Bereavement: Counseling the Grieving throughout the Life Cycle. He specializes in work with children and families.

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