In his essay “The Future of Happiness,” psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi makes an interesting observation based on his scientific research:
. . . people who are engaged in challenging activities with clear goals tend to be happier than those who lead relaxing, pleasurable lives. The less one works just for oneself, the larger the scope of one’s relationships and commitments, the happier a person is likely to be.
On the face of it, this finding seems ironic. After all, just a few paragraphs earlier, Csikszentmihalyi had explained that one of the standard measures of happiness is contentment: the people who are happiest are often those who lack any desire for what they presently have. The ability to relax and not to have to work would seem to produce pleasure, and pleasure would seem to be almost identical with happiness.
Csikszentmihalyi, however, suggests that mere relaxation may produce boredom, and that boredom may produce a desire to be more productive, to pursue a goal that benefits others as well as oneself. Csikszentmihalyi’s suggestion is intriguing, because it may imply that human beings may have an innate desire and need to be productive. His suggestion seems to imply that we are by nature goal-oriented.
It would be interesting to know, however, how much Csikszentmihalyi is assuming that the goals that give us happiness are freely chosen rather than externally imposed. It is easy, for instance, to imagine someone taking great pleasure and deriving great happiness from pursuing a goal that that person has elected for himself or herself; it is much less easy, however, to imagine either happiness or pleasure being derived from the enforced pursuit of externally mandated goals. Most of us pursue externally mandated goals at things we call “jobs,” but not everyone by any means derives pleasure or happiness from pursuing those goals unless those goals are identical (or at least close) to the goals we might have freely chosen if given the chance.
Freedom of choice, in other words, may be the key to how much happiness we derive from the goals we pursue.