Happiness is a Gauge – Not a Goal

I’ve been saying this for a couple of years now, and it’s nice to see other people approach the topic of happiness this way, too.  This all started for me when the concept of “toxic positivity” started making its way around the web.  You know how it works.  A good idea gets started, sometimes it gets enough traction to really get going, and then somebody bastardizes it for fame, fortune or fun, and then those who are impacted have to go into damage control mode.

This is what happened with positive psychology. As a body of knowledge, school of thought, or life paradigm, positive psychology is eminently valid. But some people started using it in weird and not-so-healthy ways, and this created a pretty reasonable backlash. And that includes backlash directly right at ME.  After all, I’m a certified Chief Happiness Officer, and a happiness activity and a consultant focused on happier workplace environments, and a researcher focused on happiness in myriad dimensions.  So I got all kinds of flak from people who felt overwhelmed by the constant push to “Smile, girl!” and “Happiness Is a State of Mine” and a general sense that people like me were pushing for everybody to become Stepford Wife wannabes and never experience an uncomfortable emotion (or at least not talk about it).

Whoa! If you KNOW me, you know I’m actually a huge fan of authenticity in our personal experiences, and that means honouring the full spectrum of our diverse emotions as valid and useful to our wellbeing and satisfaction. So none of those accusations were true, of course, but you know how the interwebz are great for fanning the flames of frustration into a wildfire of discontent. I don’t blame people for feeling pushed to the brink.

I’d argue that the mindsets and behaviours described by the term “toxic positivity” are actually not positivity at all, but rather performance, and not in the “fake it til you make it” way, either. They’re more like a shiny façade over a rotten, dysfunctional core. And they’re absolutely not what I advocate for. After all, I believe we can’t actually MAKE people happy. We can’t even really make ourselves happy, not in any real, sustainable way. We can trigger momentary euphoria, laughter, etc. But happiness, like every emotion, is a response to the world we’re experiencing, and so it’s going to be a fleeting experience at best. And when you set your sights on an emotion as the final goal, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

What we CAN do, though, with the understanding that our experiences create our emotions, is change the ecosystems and the environments in which we live, work, exist to ones where the emotions we prefer to experience are more likely to show up than the ones we don’t.

To use a more familiar metaphor, if your Check Engine light is always on, you’d take your car into the shop. If you’re always feeling angry, sad, lonely, anxious or actually ANY other emotion that isn’t aligned to the life you want to live, you should take YOURSELF into the shop. If you’re feeling content most of the time with a general sprinkling of other stuff, you’re probably doing a great job of navigating and nurturing your physical, emotional, social, etc. environment.  Sometimes we get lucky, and that happens without us really thinking about it. But just like with your vehicles, if we don’t do some preventative maintenance on our bodies, spirits and minds, we increase the odds of a preventable problem turning into something more serious.

When we use happiness as a gauge, that means we pause every once in a while, to intentionally check in with ourselves.  How am I feeling right now?  How have things been going for the last few days, weeks, months?  What frictions have I noticed? What improvements are important to me right now? How about for the long term? What can I do about those things? What changes can I make? Who else might I need to bring into my circle to help me make some of those changes? What work do I need to do on myself to accept the things that I can’t change and I’m willing to live with?

It looks like a long list when we put it down in words, but for me, that’s all wrapped up in the question, “Am I happy?” By gauging my honest, raw, authentic response to that question, I can do whatever needs to be done to get to the place where I want to be.  Happiness is the gauge, and I use it regularly as I navigate my road trip in the game of life.  The goals?  That’s a whole other topic!

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Sarah Ratekin
Sarah Ratekinhttps://www.happinessiscourage.com/
Sarah Ratekin, founder and Chief Happiness Officer of Happiness Is Courage Inc., translates the science of happiness and well-being into actionable plans that get radically positive results. An enthusiastic positivity activist, speaker, author, and researcher, she believes we can change the world for the better by being positive, grateful, and kind, and she’s often quoted as saying “Happiness is a gauge, not a goal”. Her current focus is on helping organizations and teams navigate the particularly complex reality of today’s stressors and engagement challenges by nurturing healthier workplace cultures. No stranger to weird working environments, she believes that everyone deserves the opportunity to develop their strengths, find joy in their profession, and engage in the pursuit of happiness in the workplace and beyond. Sarah has a veritable army of garden gnomes keeping watch over her extensive container gardens and is the proud mother of four amazing humans who are making their positive own marks on the world. She and her spouse Kris, both certified Laughter Yoga leaders, also travel extensively bringing the joy and power of laughter and positivity with organizations of all sizes and industries. In their downtime, they enjoy exploring the outdoors (usually by kayak), dancing, and general merry adventuring. Sarah and her family currently reside in Indiana and travel as often as humanly possible.


  1. Thanks for this, Sarah, I’m guessing you’ve got the happiest garden gnomes in Indiana. This ties in with my piece about listening in a way. Years ago a woman asked me, out of the blue, ‘are you happy?’ I explained to her that, yes, I was happy, and then I itemized all the reasons I considered that to be true. As it turned out she didn’t want to know my level of happiness; she wanted to talk to me about her lack of it! I learned shortly after that she and her husband had just filed for divorce, and her life had fallen apart. So perhaps part of ‘being happy’ is staying attuned to the emotions of those around us, prepared to listen and respond accordingly.

    • Byron, it’s possible on the gnomes. ;)

      I find that when people learn what I do and what I research, they often have that reaction, in part because it never occurred to them that they could actually ~do~ something about their situation in a way that was actually sustainable. The current approach to happiness tends to be “Go Buy Some Stuff!” which is such a crock. ;) I’m glad you were able to shine some of that positive light into her world (and who knows how those kinds of conversations can ripple outwards!)

  2. Really good stuff, Sarah, thank you for that clarity around the “search for happiness.” I’ve also been saying for years that searching for happiness, the pursuit of happiness, is an absurd idea because it seems to be mostly external for people on that journey. When I’m working with clients, I focus on finding satisfaction in our days, looking for moments when we felt like we did something well and felt good about it. Maybe when we can look back at our days and find more and more satisfying moments (by using our natural talents, challenging ourselves, self-reflecting on what our role was in them, and being grateful), we can find our own baseline of happiness, rather than relying on what other people describe as happy?

    • It’s interesting that you bring up satisfaction, Sarah! My dad and I have had many conversations about the difference between satisfaction/contentment and happiness, especially the way happiness is usually framed in American paradigms. I 10000000000% agree that letting other people define our emotional experiences is a losing proposition, too!