Happiness is arguably one of the most important goals in life. It can also feel like one of the most elusive, perhaps because people are chasing the wrong things. But there is a way to lasting happiness and purpose, New York University business school professor and happiness expert Jonathan Haidt tells CNBC Make It.
"Many people think that happiness comes from getting what you want," Haidt, author of "The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom " tells CNBC Make It. But when we get what we want it feels good "only for a very short time — that doesn't bring us lasting happiness."
People also think, "You'll never succeed in controlling the world...so focus on yourself...and that is the path to happiness," he says. "The Stoics in the West, the Buddhists and Hindus in many other Eastern philosophies came to this view."
But it is not the answer either, says Haidt. "This view...says, 'don't try to change the world at all — just work on yourself.' And I think that's not really the best way."
Finally, humans equate happiness with not having any restrictions on their time, being "individuals with a lot of freedom floating around," he explains. But "even though they often think they want that" that's not what actually makes people the happiest, he says.
So what is the answer?
"Happiness is best described as coming from between — that is if you get the right kind of relationship between yourself and other people, yourself and your work, and yourself and something larger than yourself... if you get those three relationships right ... it will draw you out into the world, it will engage your passions, it will give you the kind of support that you need and want and it'll give you a sense of meaning and purpose in life," he says.
Here's how to get the relationships right, according to Haidt.
1. Improve your personal connections by showing gratitude
"No man is an island. We cannot be happy isolated," Haidt says. "We need good connections."
If you are seeking to improve your personal relationships, practice gratitude, or being thankful.
"There's a lot of research in positive psychology showing that gratitude — cultivating gratitude, expressing gratitude — strengthens relationships," Haidt says.
The benefits of having strong relationships do not depend on having a single partner, says Haidt. "Don't just focus on one romantic partner. Focus on finding a group of friends who hang out and do things together."
2. Utilize your unique strengths at work
"Humans are industrious creatures, we need to experience the world as something that we're acting on, something we're making better, something we're participating in," Haidt says.
If you are struggling to find work that gives your life meaning, begin by identifying what you are good at and work to build a career around that. Haidt suggests going to the website www.viacharacter.org.www where you can take a test developed with positive psychology to rank your strengths.
"To the extent that you get to use your strengths every day in your work, you're more likely to thrive, you're more likely to feel that you've gotten the right relationship between yourself — who you are with your unique strengths — and the work that you're doing every day," Haidt says.
3. Embed yourself in a community
People "evolved to live in tight tribes, in groups. And in our modern lives we have so much privacy, so much alone time, we miss that," says Haidt.
"We thrive when we feel like we're part of something larger than ourselves. That can come from religious participation, it can come from participation in a political movement, in something that makes you feel that you are on a team that is doing something worthwhile," he says.
"The happiest people are people who are deeply embedded in a community ... they tend to be happiest when they're embedded in a group in a community, especially if it's one that has values that they respect," Haidt says.
You want to ideally feel you are "on a team pursuing a noble end," Haidt says.
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